What do you think of when you hear the words "Russian art". To the uninformed images of propaganda posters and giant politburo faces on buildings may come to mind. Perhaps the opulent splendour of Tsarist Russia? Yes all of those stereotypes can be found, but that would be a disservice to the tremendous contribution Russian artists have made to impressionist and realist art.
Freedom to Express
Since the fall of Soviet Russia the world has been able to re-access this trove of art. Impressionism in particular was well represented in Russia. Artists in the 19th and early 20th centuries studied the art movements in Europe. The thread of impressionism, namely to depict real life, nature and light was an important form of expression in Russia. One can easily imagine the sense of freedom artists felt being able to depict their friends and neighbours going about real life activities. No more restrictive academic traditions and formulas. Not to mention the political throttle that Stalinist era had brought to art.
It must be kept in mind that Russian artists in the late 1800's and early 1900's were well traveled and influenced by Impressionists in Europe too. However once the Iron curtain clanged shut after 1945 Russia and Europe were kept apart. Did the following decades preserve impressionism longer than it lasted in Europe?
Life was hard and remained a struggle for most. However when you look at paintings of rural folk depicted by Russian artists during the Soviet period you get a sense of life depicted somewhat through rose tinted glasses. Yes the artists would have been mindful of depicting Russians negatively, but there was perhaps also a sense of pride in being Russian. You may find parallels with American artists like Norman Rockwell for instance.
Restructuring Life and Art
Once the Soviet Union collapsed in the nineties the world began to see more Russian art. The beauty of this realist painting was apparent. It was also accessible at a time when Western art was for many too modern, facile or simply weird. Yes there was the whiff of Socialist propaganda buried beneath Russian art. For the most part though collectors and fans found a trove of impressionist treasure. A re-connection with the impressionists likeMonet and Pissaro that the West loves.
The Real Russian
Russian impressionist paintings have a distinctive feel and there is a sense of the Russian culture and heritage - both joyful and tragic - that radiates from some of the paintings. Artists like Ilya Repin believed that the Russian people wanted artists to depict the real Russian life. Artists who did this successfully became famous - national treasures. Valentin Serov's painting Girl with Peaches for instance was a sensation.
Russia is a huge country and of course the land, nature and the harsh elements were part of survival. Depicting Russian country life was important culturally and emotionally to the Russian psyche. Artists live Isaac Levitan did this wonderfully as can be seen in Golden Autumn below.
20th Century Impressionists
Looking to modern impressionists in the 20th century the famous brothers Alexei and Sergei Tkachev have produced stunning works. Their painting above (Children) seems to evoke so much about the fragility of life together with the universal joy of nature. Who can look at this painting and not be moved? Bold, energetic colour with contrasting lights and darks together with the emotional content makes for a powerful painting. Not to mention the genius composition and spacing of the figures, colour choices and gestures.
My Favorite Contemporary Russian Impressionists
A few of the contemporary artists that inspire me are Bato Dugarzaphov. His thick and juicy brushwork is a wonder to behold. The light in his almost abstract paintings is almost searing at times. Another artist is Peter Bezrukov who has a similar passionate approach to paint, light and brushwork. It is these artist who, for me, link directly back to the original impressionists that I love so much.
Take some time and look up more Russian Impressionists - it is well worth it.
For more about modern Russian art and its resurgent popularity read this article from Fine Art Connoisseur