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Introduction to Modernism and the Spiritual in Russian Art

Introduction to Modernism and the Spiritual in Russian Art
© Photograph by Margarita Eliseeva

In his 1961 text ‘Modernist Painting’ and other writings since, renowned art critic Clement Greenberg contended that the significance of modernist painting lay precisely in its aesthetic qualities. The autonomy granted to an artwork rendered factors outside of its formal aspects, such as artistic intention, tangential to its meaning or value. Art was now free from religious, political, or moral content and ideas, however strongly intended or present.

Clement Greenberg’s theory of formalist modernism has been criticised at length since the 1960s, yet scholars still find it necessary to refute it, especially in discussions of the importance of spirituality or religion in the history of modern art, showing its lasting power. For Russian modernism, however, Clement Greenberg’s theories have little relevance. It is this book’s contention that, in Russia, extrinsic ideas and influences — and, most of all, those of Russian religious and spiritual traditions — were of the utmost importance in the making, content, and meaning of modern art. The claim is not entirely new; for example, scholarship in recent years has engaged with such highly pertinent questions as how icon painting became an inspiration for the Russian avant-garde. Highlighting fresh research from an international set of scholars, this volume introduces new interpretations and approaches, and aims to energise debate on issues which have been circulating in scholarship on modern art over the past century. Ten chapters from emerging and established historians illustrate the diverse ways in which themes of religion and spirituality were central to the work of artists and critics during the rise of Russian modernism.

The relationship between modernism and the spiritual has been, and continues to be, a subject of debate in art historical scholarship in the west. Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky, whose seminal treatise, ‘On the Spiritual in Art’ (‘Über das Geistige in der Kunst’), of 1911–12 has been hailed as one of the most important texts in the history of modern art, is a key figure in such discussions. Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky’s theories, based upon spiritual notions outside of Russian Orthodoxy, are now interpreted as owing much to Theosophy; indeed, the influence of spiritual traditions beyond mainstream religion has informed much scholarship to date on the nexus between modernism and spirituality. Appearing soon after Clement Greenberg set out his definition of modernism, Sixten Ringbom’s publications on Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky pioneered the discussion of the spiritual in theories of modern art. In the past fifty years, more research has emerged, often in connection with the multitude of exhibitions on the theme of “the spiritual in modern art” that took place in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Displays such as ‘Perceptions of the Spirit in Twentieth-Century American Ar’t (Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1977) and ‘The Spiritual in Modern Art: Abstract Painting’, 1890–1985 (Los Angeles County Museum of Modern Art, 1986) did much to change the terms of debate (indeed, the latter was described by James Elkins as “watershed work”). The momentum continues. To take a more recent example, the relationship between Russian art and religious culture was examined in the exhibition ‘Jesus Christ in Christian Art and Culture of the Fourteenth to Twentieth Centuries’ (Iisus Khristos v khristianskom iskusstve i kul′ture XIV–XX veka) in 2000 to 2001 at the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg. At the time of publication, there has been an upsurge in books, conferences, and academic networks focused upon the relationship between modernism and spirituality and/or religion, making this volume’s publication especially timely.

With these developments in mind, one of the principal aims of this book is to broaden the debate on Russian artists and the spiritual beyond Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky. Instead, the discussion expands to highlight other modern artists, critics, and mediating figures. Our intention is to open research in new directions; this is not, and does not claim to be, a comprehensive survey.

The plurality of religious and spiritual traditions with active followers in Russia during the timeframe under consideration, and the resulting effects upon art, cannot meaningfully be reflected by a group of disparate authors without forfeiting analytical depth and the detail of their research. For example, none of the chapters deals with Judaism, which naturally falls into the frame in any discussion of avant-garde artists such as Marc Zakharovich Chagall, Nathan Isaevich Altman, and others. Esoteric spirituality here is reflected only by Theosophy, but encompasses a far broader set of belief practices that influenced modernist art during this period — the story of Shamanism and Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky is a notable example. Although this volume highlights the richness of the spiritual theme, it should be remembered that this did not necessarily have an impact upon the work of every Russian artist of the late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century; rather, this phenomenon represented a pervasive theme within Russian modernism.

Throughout this publication, “spiritual” is used as an umbrella term to encompass a broad range of religious sources and art that engaged — and, at times, entranced — critics and artists in the late nineteenth- and early-twentieth-centuries. Credit is given to the variety of influences, including Russian religious art — primarily icons and frescoes, which, in the late-nineteenth-century, were appreciated for the first time as artistic, rather than religious, objects — and spiritual concepts such as Theosophy, ideas of the Russian “soul”, and the translation of mystical concepts. Religion — that “noncultic, major system of belief” and all its often public and communal trappings (hymns, catechisms, liturgies, rituals, etc.) — is thus united with spirituality — the “private, subjective, often wordless”.

Scholarship in Russia and the west has explored some of the overarching themes of this article with reference to a variety of figures, mostly artists themselves, over a wide chronology. The narrative spans from Aleksandr Ivanov’s exploration of religious ideas in his paintings of the first half of the nineteenth-century, to the Soviet nonconformist artists of the 1960s, and ultimately to other artistic media, for example, Andrei Arsenyevich Tarkovsky’s films of the latter half of the twentieth-century. However, this book concentrates on the critical years of modernism in Russia from its early stages in the late-nineteenth-century, when artists began to challenge the traditional boundaries of painting, sculpture, and architecture by consciously adopting more radical techniques, media, or themes, until the Thaw period, by which time socialist realism had become thoroughly entrenched as the official art of the Soviet Union.

The diverse array of spiritual influences during this period fuelled new formal and theoretical investigations in art, incited fierce debates among artists and critics as to how such concerns were to be deployed, and drew interest from followers and enthusiasts in the west. The notion of the spiritual, broadly defined — whether drawn from conventional religious art or from esoteric ideas — helped shape modernism in Russian art and underpinned some of its most radical experiments. This was especially the case with Russia’s pioneering exponents of non-objective painting — Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky, Kazimir Severinovich Malevich, Natalia Sergeevna Goncharova, and Mikhail Fyodorovich Larionov — who now appear at the heart of the standard art historical narrative of early abstraction. This volume offers new readings of a history only partially explored, delving into less familiar stories, and challenging long-held assumptions.

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