The Beginnings of Modern Art in Russia

Matthew Israel
Nov 14, 2012 9:41PM

In general, between 1905 to 1910, Russia became a major meeting place for the progressive art ideas of the time, which were being promoted from places like Munich, Vienna and especially Paris, and an indigenous art scene slowly began to develop from this cosmopolitan basis. This was quite a change for Russia, for until that point it had been considered to be at the artistic margins of the Western world. In addition to the interaction of ideas that encouraged the art scene, there were also new magazines which discussed new art movements that were available in Russia, and more importantly, significant Russian collectors who brought major European art to Russia. 

The most well-known of these collectors was a man by the name of Sergei Shchukin. By 1905 Shchukin had accrued a collection rich in the Impressionists and during the first decade of the 20th century he quickly became involved in collecting the work of Picasso and Matisse. In particular by 1910 Shchukin had already amassed fifty Picasso’s and as a result, some of Matisse and Picasso's most significant works of the period ended up in Russia. 

Shchukin’s collection was quite influential on the Russian avant-garde movement because he allowed artists to see the works in his collection. And as a result, it could be argued that during this period he allowed artists better in-person exposure to the most advanced art of the period from Paris even more than artists would have if they lived in Paris. Evidence of this state of advancement was the exhibition "The Golden Fleece" of 1909, which included the latest works of Matisse and Picasso alongside new work from Russia, and which many critics believed showed both countries moving at the same rapid speed of advancement in art.

This progress peaked between 1910 and 1914 when Russia became a truly international center. A few exhibitions are central to this assessment. The first was The Donkey’s Tail exhibition on March 11, 1912, which was the first to both assert an independent Russian school and also the first to bring together the artists who would be the big four of Russian art: Larionov, Goncharova, Malevich, and Tatlin. Another major exhibition was produced by the so-called Jack of Diamonds group, which showed works in 1912 by Picasso, Leger, Gleizes and Le Fauconnier. There was also an exhibition called “The Target.” This exhibition included the introduction of Rayonnism, a movement which very much aligned itself with Cubism’s fracturing of masses. 

On one hand, Rayonnism was a short-lived movement that was more heavy in theory than on actual works (and was one of the many styles that Michael Larionov and Natalia Goncharova worked with during this period). Yet on the other hand it was very important, for it was the pioneer abstract painting movement in Russia and it was based on its ideas that the painter Kasimir Malevich went on to found Suprematism, which was the first systematic school of abstract painting in the Russia.

More on Malevich and Russian art in a subsequent post…

Matthew Israel