Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 8, 2006
Yevgenia Petrova, ed. Mir Iskusstva: Russia’s Age of Elegance St. Petersburg: Palace Editions, State Russian Museum, 2005. 152 pp.; 155 color ills.; 9 b/w ills. Cloth (0967845130)
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, NE, June 4–September 14, 2005; Weisman Art Museum, Minneapolis, MN, October 8–December 31, 2005; Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton, NJ, February 25–June 11, 2006
Léon Bakst. Supper. 1902. Oil on canvas. 150 x 100 cm. Image courtesy of the State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg.

The exhibition Mir Iskusstva: Russia’s Age of Elegance at the Princeton University Art Museum coincides with several recent exhibitions on aspects of Russian art, mostly contemporary, that have been inspired by last year’s big Russia! show at New York’s Guggenheim Museum. The Princeton exhibition stands out, however, as a crucially important addition to the Guggenheim blockbuster, because it represents a major historic epoch in Russian art and culture that was almost overlooked by the organizers of the Guggenheim show. Mir Iskusstva, or World of Art, was not only the name of a group of artists formed around a periodical with the same title, it was a movement that reflected the Belle Epoch of an elegant and cosmopolitan turn-of-the-century Russia; this parallel to the Vienna Secession was expressed not only in fine arts, but in theater, graphic and book design, interior decoration, and porcelain, as well as poetry and music. It influenced—mainly through Sergei Diaghilev’s famous Russian Seasons in Western Europe, and later through emigration—not only European art, but theater, fashion, and an entire lifestyle of the 1910s and 1920s. The organizers of the Princeton exhibition chose a broad cultural approach to represent through the prism of Mir Iskusstva this important and delightful era in Russian culture that is practically unknown to the U.S. public. The show—which was also on view at the Joslyn Art Museum and the Weisman Art Museum— is the first exhibition in the United States devoted to the World of Art movement.

The works of art were drawn entirely from the collection of the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, and the exhibition was organized by the Foundation for International Arts and Education (located in Bethesda, MD). In the first of the two rooms of the exhibition, visitors are immediately confronted by large-scale masterpieces that are key works in the history of Russian art. Among them are Supper by Léon Bakst (1902) and Boys by Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1911). The soft Art Nouveau silhouettes of Supper, the symbolist intoxication in Boys (according to the latest scholarship, one of them holds a head of poppy), and the neoclassical frankness of Bathhouse by Zinaida Serebriakova (1913) represent a stylistic variety united by a cult of art as such. A series of portraits—of the poet Anna Akhmatova by Natan Altman (1915), the theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold by Boris Grigoriev (1916), the Mir Iskusstva members by Boris Kustodiev (1920), and a famous portrait of Diaghilev by Bakst (1906)—personify, like mythical muses, the branches of the arts in this so-called “Silver Age” of Russian culture. Most surprising and delightful of all was the portrait of Ida Rubinstein by Valentin Serov (1910). Rubinstein—amateur dancer, patron, and icon of eccentric beauty—was especially famous for her controversial nude dances as Salome and as Cleopatra in the Russian Seasons. Serov depicted Rubinstein in her stage costume—a scarf and some jewelry—in a flat, angular manner resembling an Assyrian relief. This scandalous painting, which was thrown out of a Parisian salon for its provocative representation and labeled a “galvanized corpse” by contemporaries because of its stylized delineation of the female body, is one of the icons of the Mir Iskusstva movement, and one of the finest examples of the Russian Art Nouveau style. It comprises many features of Mir Iskusstva, such as allusion to the synthesis of the arts, multilayered historical references, and elegant irony. Irony seems to ever accompany this work—in the Princeton exhibition, it is placed opposite Bathhouse. With the gaze of a “wounded lioness” (as Serov is quoted on page 73 of the catalogue), the gaunt Cleopatra of the Belle Epoch looks over her shoulder at voluptuous Russian beauties.

The essence of the Mir Iskusstva movement, however, was not in the large representational paintings; the movement was interdisciplinary in nature and comprehensive in its view of art. Painting, sculpture, graphic arts, music and dance, and opera and theater were accorded equal status. Many artists constituting the core of the group produced their key works in subtle graphic arts, rather than painting. Examples of gouache and watercolor paintings and drawings, lithographs and prints, costume and set designs, and posters and books are presented in the second room of the exhibition. Konstantin Somov’s Bosquet series, Alexander Benois’s Versailles fantasies, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky’s townscapes, and Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva’s poetic woodcuts are enjoyable illustrations of Mir Iskusstva’s motto “art for art’s sake.” Boris Anisfeld’s costumes and set designs, Bakst’s posters, book illustrations by Georgy Narbut, Elena Polenova, and Ivan Bilibin all convey the feeling of the precious quality of an everyday culture now lost. The notion of a synthesis of the arts is enhanced by several sculptures by Serov and Prince Paolo Trubetskoi. One of the exhibition’s special treats is the porcelain statuettes, particularly those of Somov. Placed next to his painting In a Bosquet (1899), they emphasize the puppet-like, ironic, and theatrical nature of the depicted scene. It is a pity, however, that only one corner of the room is allotted to such an important aspect of the Mir Iskusstva group. A much larger space is provided for the next part of the exhibition—portraits.

In order to introduce the public not only to the art works but to their creators, the exhibition organizers mounted an impressive gallery of portraits: members of Mir Iskusstva seen by their fellow artists, self-portraits, portraits of patrons and collectors, officials, intellectual companions, and close friends. The portraits provide insightful studies of the intellectual elite of the age. The variety of approaches to portraiture reveals complex interrelations between artists and models, united in the light of the artistic ideals of the time. One of the centerpieces of the gallery is a luxurious, but also fragile, oval portrait of the Petersburg dandy Methodius Lukianov by Somov (1918). The labels that explicate the further, often tragic, destinies of the depicted characters contribute to the psychology of their portraits, and convey the feeling of a lost epoch. Many of them had to emigrate from Russia after the Bolshevik revolution, and lived in exile. At the same time, the fact that these personalities continued to function abroad—some made their way to the United States—gives a sense of a continuation of the Mir Iskusstva tradition and its implementation in contemporary culture. The study for a portrait of the Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninov, for example, was executed by Somov in 1925 in New York, a commission by Steinway. The actual portrait now adorns Carnegie Hall. Historical portraits of Tsar Aleksander III by Serov (1900) and of the ancient religious leader Sergius Radonezhsky by Mikhail Nesterov (1899) make a transition to the last section of the exhibition—Old Russian Revival.

Like many turn-of-the-century European artists, the members of Mir Iskusstva sought retreat in exotic cultures, myths, or distant epochs. Ancient Russia was one of them, along with the age of Louis XIV, the gallantry of the eighteenth century, and ancient Greek mythology. The customs and history of Old Russia—some of which were still vivid at the beginning of the twentieth century—were seen in the romanticized light of fairy-tales or as theatrical decorations. The image of a traditional Russian carnival, for example, was employed by Boris Kustodiev as a background for a portrait of the famous opera tenor Fyodor Chaliapin (1922). Along with Russian-themed works, this part of the exhibition includes still-lifes, landscapes, and other genres that contribute to an understanding of the pastoral spirit of rural Russia during the Belle Epoch.

A lavishly produced catalogue includes five short introductory essays contextualizing the Mir Iskusstva movement historically and culturally. In addition to excellent reproductions of works from the exhibition, the catalogue contains high-quality documentary photographs of St. Petersburg and of the Ballets Russes dancers.

Although, as it states in the catalogue, the exhibition showcases just a “small sampling of the wonderful era” (14), it provides a brief but substantial introduction not only to the World of Art movement, but to the much broader Russian elite culture in the years of transition to the modern era. The show will help contribute to the popularization of the Mir Iskusstva movement among the general public as well as among scholars, as it attracts attention to one of the most delightful and important epochs in Russian art that was practically unfamiliar to U.S. viewers.

Julia Tulovsky
PhD, independent scholar

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