Russia’s Artistic Orientalist History

Inessa Kuteinikova

Magazine issue: 
#4 2010 (29)

The monumental exhibition of Russian Orientalist paintings from the principal museums of Russia, Ukraine, Armenia and Uzbekistan (with a small part from private collections in Moscow and London) continues the remarkable tradition of the Groningen Museum in the Netherlands in filling a longstanding gap - and filling it most satisfyingly - in researching lesser- known Russian themes and mounting a comprehensive and highly sophisticated exhibition. As we gaze at these impressive canvases in a European setting, we find ourselves confronted by an adapted genre brought back into the milieu of the original.

What is Russian Orientalism? Indeed, the form was so popular that its practitioners emerged in several major Russian art centres outside the Imperial Academy of Arts. It has been rightly said that all of these painters were united thematically rather than stylistically, or geographically: in no sense do they constitute a “school”.

Yet they require stylistic analysis as much as thematic, for many of the artists drawing inspiration from the East were stimulated intellectually, visually and politically. Moreover, the extraordinary long life of Russian Orientalism ensured that it passed through a variety of phases, which can be demarcated by geography, politics, subject matter, style, ideology, ethnic and national affiliations. Besides, many of the Russian artists had associations with other art forms (such as architecture, crafts, literature, theatre or photography), which in turn influenced their eastern experiences.

Although in the 19th century Russian academic school Orientalism was considered as important subject for painting as history, antiquity, or mythology, Russian painters reinvigorated the subject and found in it an unprecedented breadth of opportunity for individual expression. Only a few were originally influenced by the British (Frederic Leighton, Thomas Seddon, and David Roberts) or French artists (Jean-Leon Gerome, Jean Joseph Benjamin-Constant, and Eugene Alexis Girardet), but those who were soon parted company both stylistically and philosophically.

Russian Orientalism survived as a generally positive description of the period with interests in the East throughout the 19th century. In art historical circles it also remained a relatively value-free term, although the work of the Russian Orientalists experienced, from an aesthetic as well as an ideological standpoint, extremes of critical acclaim and disapproval.

To what extent do the various arts stay in tune with their political environment, cultural and social context? How did the challenge and developments in the visual arts and literature tackle the issues of Russia’s superiority and inferiority? What, for instance, are we to make of the conquest of “Orientals by Orientals” when set against the spiritual and artistic pilgrimages to the Holy Land? Can we apply the term “critical realism” to the Orientalist paintings? Where does the European equivalent emerge, and then exhaust itself, here? What are the ideological commitments and the ethnic roots of Russian Orientalism? These are a few of the questions which the Groningen exhibition touches upon. The more we see how the image of the Orient varies in Russian representations of the 19th century, the more we must acknowledge the variability of Russia itself. Reassessing Russia’s 19th century “Oriental” past along the lines of its Oriental art, would have meant a fresh appraisal of Russia’s links with the East and West.

Taking a broad view on this subject, the Groningen exhibition traces the development of the movement from its origins in the sumptuous realism of Vasily Smirnov and Nikolai Shustov’s historical allegories, through the first-hand experience with Russia’s southern frontiers of Christian Heisler, Nikolai Karazin, Vasily Polenov, Vasily Vereshchagin, Ivan Kazakov and Mikhail Belaevsky. These artists took part in the early Imperial expeditions, participated in the 19th-century military campaigns, and turned themselves into visual chronologists of history; others were attracted by the allure and resonance of the myth of the Orient, such as Pavel Kuznetzov, Sergei Svitoslavsky and Alexei Issupov. Lev Boure became a 20th-century equivalent of Peter Saenredam1, capturing the serenity and poetry of the monuments and mausoleums in his native Samarkand. Their finest works served to immortalize the East and inspired the following generation of Russian artists to explore and record the beauty, danger, mystery and adventure of the recently-conquered Russian territories. The first part of the exhibition is about artists rendering their encounters with Russia’s eastern and southern neighbours and their heritage.

While discussing the works produced by artists who visited the Orient, the Groningen show does not overlook those artists who grew up there, and their completely different setting and vision, principles and traditions. Grigory Sharbabchian, Vardges Surenyanc, Niko Pirosmanishvili, Martiros Saryan. Many of them set out to discover echoes of a world they had grown up in but had lost. The Caucasus offered opportunities to these artists for a long continuation of the tradition of the picturesque (as in the work of Saryan and Sharbabchian) and an interest in the traditional and spectacular, pursued by artists as varied as Vardges Surenyanc, Hovhannes Hovnatanyan and Niko Pirosmanishvili; the last of these painted a strikingly innovative series of oil paintings which earned him an extensive interest among Abstract Expressionists and Fauvists. He could also be termed a leading primitivist.

Nevertheless, 20th-century artists still turned to Central Asia. Kuznetzov and Svitoslavsky both traveled there, developing their sense of colour and ethnographic setting. There are many reasons to think about the new generations of Orientalists on the centenary of their journeys to Turkestan. Among them is their ability to see. Alexander Nikolaev (Usto-Mumin), Nikolai Karakhan, Alexander Volkov had an almost superhuman ability to perceive reality. It was Volkov’s genius that brought the Russian audience face to face with the new Central Asia. What the artists like him and Nikolai Kharakhan attempted to demonstrate was a social history of Russian Orientalism. Nikolaev’s artistic and personal interest in the Orient far transcends the grandeur and historicism of the 19th-century school: in every work the artist looked for spiritual inspiration and evocation which puzzles the viewer unfamiliar with the personal history of Nikolaev’s life. By portraying the decayed and backward civilizations of Turkestan, he refers them to the economic, cultural and political transformations of history. Several Russian collections, together with a distinct selection of paintings from the National Gallery of Armenia, the Saryan House Museum in Yerevan in addition to the “Uzbek” school of painting from the Tashkent Art Museum, the Savitsky Museum in Nukus and Samarkand Art Museum formed part of the exhibition.

Painting is usually believed to touch the aesthetic sphere more fully than photography, although certain failures in the documentary role of painting can betray the limited knowledge of the Russian artists working in foreign places, and our understanding of them. The rare vintage photos — courtesy of the Rusian Ethnographic Museum in St. Petersburg — by Samuil Dudin, Alexander Serzhputovsky and Danish photographer Torvald Mitreiter (he worked for the Imperial court) fill the lacuna.

As previously mentioned, many Russian practitioners of Orientalism were interested in more than one art, including painting, theatre and design, architecture and photography, music, literature and the applied arts. This is especially true of the “World of Art” group who received an ambitious project from the hands of the equally ambitious chairman of the Russian railways Nikolai von Meck in 1913 to design the interiors of the newly-build Kazan Station in Moscow (designed by the architect Alexei Shchusev). They were interested in new languages, literature, religions, philosophy, and the decorative arts and social life of the East. They were not only eclectic in their approach to Oriental art, but also massively eclectic in their response to Oriental cultures. Perhaps their fundamental innovation in their representations of the East in the heart of the Orthodox Russian capital lies in the imagery chosen for the station’s restaurant and conference hall, on which Lanseray worked for 20 years. His was the first project in which almost all the known cultures and resources of the new Soviet Empire were made available in mural paintings. A full understanding of the Russian artistic Orient can only come from this heterogeneous material, however audacious the approach may be. This is perhaps the prime rationale for this complex exhibition and is particularly timely from a variety of different disciplinary standpoints, which purport to offer insights into 19th-century and early 20th-century Russian culture and its conflicting views on Orientalism, imperialism and nationalism.

The exhibition’s central figures
While the rule of reason prevailed in the West, irrationality and barbarism were seen to reign supreme in the East. This dualism was the basis of the artwork of the quintessentially Russian painter Vasily Vereshchagin, who is often thought of as an active and moral chronicler of Russian history. Like his teacher Jean-Leon Gerome, he led a double life: a painter and soldier on the one hand, and a political controversialist on the other. The similarities go further. Some are superficial but noteworthy: like Gerome, Vereshchagin addresses his academic peers in a clear imperious painterly style while making vast, spectacular and sharply argued polemical works for a wider public. However, Vereshchagin has always been closer to the centre of events than Gerome. He was widely seen not quite as the painter-in-exile of the Russian government, but certainly as something like its moral conscience. In the field of Russian foreign politics (in Crimea, the Caucacus, the Balkans and Turkestan) Vereshchagin exercised all the indignation that an acute citizen could. Such indignation raised deep questions about the role of moral consience in Imperial Russia. The fact that the Russian Empire had made several significant political advances towards its eastern and southern neighbours since the late 18th-century is hard to overlook. At the same time it was thought that Russia had a specific civilizing mission in Asia. The eminent Russian historian of Asia, Vasily Grigoriev believed that “we are called on to protect their people from the destructive influence of Nature itself, hunger, cold and sickness... to put these people’s lives in order, having taught these rude children of the forests and deserts to acknowledge the beneficent power of civilizing laws. We are called on to enlighten these peoples with religion and science”2. There were plenty of critics in Vereshchagin’s time who claimed that the artist’s polemical painterly style was an attack on Russian political affairs. Artistically, he is committed to an open discussion on the basis that viewers assume the artist’s sincerity. Polemically, he treats his conservative opponents as creatures who have crawled out of the swamps of the Russian bourgeoisie.

At the time of being hired by General Konstantin Petrovich von Kaufman, the Tsar’s new governor-general of Turkestan, the artist told a friend that he “had no passionate love for the East, God forbid! I studied in the East because I was freer there ... than in the West. Instead of a Parisian garret or some room . on Vasilievsky Island, I had a Kyrgyz yurt.”3

The secret of Vereshchagin’s appeal is that he saw himself in what now seems almost an old-fashioned way as a voice of conscience, someone who remembers injustice, who speaks for those who can no longer speak for themselves. It is as if there are questions the historian is not permitted to ask, but the artist is capable of answering.

Vereshchagin was always personally reticent. He distinguishes with perhaps implausible sharpness between our personal and private feelings about the course of history that Russia had chosen from the 1770s onwards, and confirms with his work that we have an obligation to explain in a variety of ways the vividness of the reality we see around ourselves and what we are obliged to feel as citizens.

Vereshchagin’s Turkestan types, whether they be young children, women, strong-headed men, or the old with their dark faces, cannot age. Vereshchagin’s characters appear to take a fatalistic pride in the historical swirl of events envisioned for them by their creator and inspired by a tragic history. The eyes of Vereshchagin’s sitters as they stare at us from his pictures suggest that, like the blind Tiresias, they have “foresuffered” all.

In his disturbing “Barbarians” series he presented history as the naked land of Mephistopheles, yet it had a lyricism, mercy and tenderness rarely to be found in his other paintings. The amazed interest he once took in the human vulnerability and strength of his sitters has been replaced by an appalled horror at their condition. Within all the portraits in which the local Turkestan people make their powerful appearance, there is always something heroic about them.

Vereshchagin’s contemporary Vasily Polenov’s landscapes and architectural scenes of the Holy Land were made as a souvenir of a tour and a pilgrimage from Crimea to Jerusalem, an itinerary typical of the time. Polenov clearly presents the locations of his pictures as a place of gathering for spiritual contemplation; his paintings of scenes of heavenly calm are strikingly varied, juxtaposing the human and the divine (without their exactly intermingling), but also bringing together a variety of Jewish, Christian and Arab motives. The tone of a seemingly-untouched landscape is only heightened by a Jewish youth approaching from afar through the scene next to the majestic ruins of the monasteries and holy wall of Solomon. Whatever differences need to be noted between the two artists, Polenov and Vereshchagin had much in common: both were historically minded and spent time as war correspondents. Both were seekers of “Big Truths”4, both had an ability to see reality in all its details. By entering directly into life in all its contradictions, they destroyed their own peace of mind forever.

It is tempting to say that the history of Russian Orientalism, both political and artistic, amounted to a move away from exotic romanticism towards an unmistakably Russian vision; but it is a temptation to be kept under control. Is Orientalism truly a national characteristic, inherent in Russian historiography? For one thing, Russia’s connection with the Orient grew from within rather than being brought in from without: Russia’s Oriental element sprang from contacts with eastern nations inside the Russian empire. Secondly, Russian interests in the Orient developed in parallel with Russian foreign policy and answered strictly national interests. Nor is the lineage of Russia’s Orientalist politics simple.

All the artists of this exhibition are involved in the historical reconstruction of the Orient, and this is exactly what makes it possible for the exhibition to confront the issues raised by Orientalism, which cut across the chronology of Russian painting.


  1. Peter Saenredam (15971665), the Dutch painter of churches and their austere interiors, based on precise perspective drawings and often executed years alter.
  2. V. Grigoriev, quoted in: Bassin M. Imperial Visions: Nationalist Imagination and Geographical Expansion in the Russian Far East 1840-65. Cambridge, 1990. P. 54.
  3. Lebedev, A.K. Vasily Vereshchagin. Moscow, 1972. P. 54.
  4. See: Berlin, Isaiah. Russian Thinkers, Tolstoy and Enlightenment (London: Penguin Books, 1978). P. 238.



Alexei ISSUPOV. Oriental Teahouse. 1914–1921
Alexei ISSUPOV. Oriental Teahouse. 1914-1921
Tempera on multiplex. 79.5 × 64.5 cm. State Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan named after I.V.Savitsky, Nukus
Evgeny LANCERAY. The Peoples of Russia. 1916–1917
Evgeny LANCERAY. The Peoples of Russia. 1916-1917
Mural for the conference hall of the Board of Directors of the Moscow-Kazan Railway Station. Tempera on canvas. 130 × 720 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Vasily POLENOV. On Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee). 1888
Vasily POLENOV. On Lake Tiberias (Sea of Galilee). 1888
Oil on canvas. 79 × 158 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Vasily VERESHCHAGIN. Procession Celebrating Muharram in Shusha. 1865
Vasily VERESHCHAGIN. Procession Celebrating Muharram in Shusha. 1865
Black pencil, white blending stump on paper. 72 x 91.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Andrei ROLLER. The Gardens of Chernomor. 1842
Andrei ROLLER. The Gardens of Chernomor. 1842
Sketch of set design for the opera “Ruslan and Liudmila” by Mikhail Glinka, the Bolshoi Theatre, St Petersburg. Oil on canvas. 45.5 × 61 cm. Bakhrushin State Theatrical Museum, Moscow
Pavel KUZNETSOV. Working in the Steppe. Sheep Shearing. 1913
Pavel KUZNETSOV. Working in the Steppe. Sheep Shearing. 1913
Tempera on canvas. 94.5 × 104.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Niko PIROSMANISHVILI. Feast. 1905–1907
Niko PIROSMANISHVILI. Feast. 1905-1907
Oil on oilcloth. 113 × 177 cm. Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow
Alexander NIKOLAEV (Usto-Mumin). The Bridegroom. 1923
Alexander NIKOLAEV (Usto-Mumin). The Bridegroom. 1923
Oil on canvas. 24.3 × 22.8 cm. State Museum of the Republic of Karakalpakstan named after I.V.Savitsky, Nukus
Grigor SHARBABCHIAN. Keinoba. Celebration of Quinquagesima in the Old Tiflis
Grigor SHARBABCHIAN. Keinoba. Celebration of Quinquagesima in the Old Tiflis
Oil on canvas. 143 × 286 cm. National Gallery of Armenia, Yerevan
Martiros SARYAN. Head of a Young Girl. 1912
Martiros SARYAN. Head of a Young Girl. 1912
Tempera on cardboard. 70.5 × 53.5 cm. Tretyakov Gallery
Alexander NIKOLAEV (Usto-Mumin). The Bridegroom. 1920
Alexander NIKOLAEV (Usto-Mumin). The Bridegroom. 1920
Tempera on paper. 39 × 34 cm. Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow



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