Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 26, 1999
James Cracraft The Petrine Revolution in Russian Imagery Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. 409 pp.; 35 color ills.; 95 b/w ills. Cloth $55.00 (0226116654)
Grigory Kaganov Images of Space: St. Petersburg in the Visual and Verbal Arts Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. 206 pp.; 76 b/w ills. Cloth $51.00 (0804727422)

In Western thought, space is preexisting and absolute. So asserts the philosophical tradition traced through Descartes, Spinoza, Leibniz, Newton, and Kant. But as spatial theorist Henri Lefebvre points out, accounts of mental conceptual space in mathematics distanced themselves from those concerning the measurable physical space of geography. And neither mental nor physical space were treated by theorists in relation to the collective social space produced by human practices, viewed since the nineteenth century in political terms and in connection with the rise of capitalism. Two new works have joined the growing body of studies that attempt to bridge the gap in discourse about space, both concerned with the city of St. Petersburg, which the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground called “the most abstract and premeditated city in the whole world.” These two books focus on techniques of representation in the visual arts, linking mental and physical spaces in ways that illuminate social culture.

The apocalyptic fantasies and eerie legends connected with St. Petersburg have been a part of that city’s culture ever since Peter the Great imposed his will on the swamplands of the Neva Delta in 1703, founding a new city on the bones of conscripted laborers. Grigory Kaganov’s Images of Space, now available to English-language readers in an attentive translation by Sidney Monas, makes the central claim that St. Petersburg’s peculiar physical space—the hollowness and artificiality deriving from the city’s inorganic origins—has been countered by artists from the eighteenth century to the present. These artists used imagination as an alternative to the state’s aspirations to classical geometry, in order to give shape to the cosmic chaos always threatening to burst forth from beneath the city. The desolate emptiness of Petersburg’s setting initially served as the enemy against which art pitted itself. Artists thus employed strategies of perspective to suggest a grandeur or intimacy entirely lacking in early documented accounts of the cityscape. In time, Petersburg artists ceased to battle the estranged quality of northern space, and instead began to use this quality as an artistic device. Artists produced increasingly incorporeal, ephemeral visions of the city that corresponded to the hallucinatory urban vistas created by writers like Dostoevsky.

Kaganov moves through the familiar periods of Petersburg history—Baroque, Rococo, Neoclassical, Empire, Romantic, Realist, Modernist—but emphasizes that his true subject is space itself. Kaganov does not document the artifacts that fill space, but the social and cultural practices by which space is produced, formed, and shaped. Kaganov seeks to articulate how culture “takes up” space in St. Petersburg, which is to say, how artists claim, occupy, distribute, and semiotically deploy space in their compositions. He is particularly interested in reading violations of verisimilitude and perspective in terms of the messages these images convey.

Kaganov notes an essential shift in the spatializing views informing visual and literary art as the mid-nineteenth century approaches, a paradigm shift from the “cult of central emptiness, which had its own value and was not to be filled in” (p. 85), to a more domestic, interior focus, a “Biedermeier poetics” (p. 88). Human bodies began to occupy hitherto unoccupied aesthetic space, extending into the middle of the former emptiness with bulky attire, cluttered furnishings, and markedly performative social behavior. The object of both visual and literary depiction during the 1840s and 1850s was often a series of simultaneous, parallel genre “scenes,” resulting in a notable “narrative disconnectedness” (p. 112). The viewer no longer contemplated an untouchable space, but penetrated it, just as the represented local events organized the urban space in which they transpired.

Kaganov here makes a fascinating leap, linking this detailed fragmentation with the increasing tendency of artists to create fantastical alternative Petersburgs from combinations of such fragments. Kaganov’s assertion represents a brilliant link between realist and premodernist aesthetics as concerns urban space, and posits a cycle that returns artists again and again to a search for spatial unity. Kaganov extends his vision to the World of Art movement and the Russian Symbolists, who so privileged the idea of a higher, infinite reality beyond the merely tactile and visual features of the ordinary world. Turn-of-the-century engravings by Mstislav Dobuzhinsky and Anna Ostroumova contrast this world with the glittering, distant “other” world in lower and upper regions of the composition. Later representations show the two worlds breaking in on one another’s space by means of perspective, reflection, and openings.

Kaganov’s story of art continues into the 1920s, the period following Revolution and Civil War, when Petersburg was represented as a dying city, albeit one of unearthly beauty. Later Soviet-era visions of utopian flight and suspension envisioned the city from above. And in the 1960s and 1970s, the new construction ringing the older parts of the city suggested the image of a childhood home, a site of memory collectively preserved by St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) artists. Kaganov ends with an assertion of “the movement of culture” (p. 188) that “keeps giving birth to new images of space,” the “living unity” (p. 189) in the impressions that urban space makes on the artistic memory in culture.

James Cracraft’s The Petrine Revolution in Russian Imagery is the second volume in a study of the “cultural revolution” wrought in Russia by Peter the Great and his policies of modernization. This volume emphasizes the Europeanization of the visual arts in Russia, and the evolution of modern forms of imagery—Western-style painting, sculpture, drawing, and printmaking—that augmented traditional forms of sacred iconography. The volume is not exclusively dedicated to St. Petersburg, since Cracraft also treats Muscovy’s transition out of the medieval era during the seventeenth century. But the Petrine revolution is inseparable from the history of Peter’s city, and the city as a cultural entity is essential to Cracraft’s view of Russian modernization, since the major developments of the Renaissance and the European print revolution were concentrated in urban environments.

Cracraft’s book is constructed as a chronological survey, with an entire chapter devoted to the influences of Byzantine tradition on the development of Russian sacred art—particularly icon painting and manuscript illumination—beginning in the late fourteenth century. Cracraft points out that a fully elaborated theory of imagery in art did not emerge until the late sventeenth century in Moscow, due in part to the low levels of education and literacy. This nascent image theory was immediately “penetrated” by the Renaissance and Baroque aesthetics beginning to reach Russia from Europe at that time. Russian secular art turned away from the traditional Byzantine conception of images as channels between viewer and sacred subjects, toward a Western-oriented view of images as particular signs, conventionally rendered and subject to interpretation. By necessity, the great imagery shift in Russia involved the transfer of control over the production of art from the Church to the Tsar, resulting in a tsarist “monopoly of image-making” (p. 293). The final product was the “visibly new Russia” that emerged at the end of the eighteenth century in architecture, landscaping, interior decoration, painting, sculpture, and the graphic arts.

Cracraft is careful to note that the Imperial elite were the “prime consumers or beneficiaries” (p. 258) of the revolution in imagery, but asserts that reflections of these changes can be found “often interestingly distorted” in popular culture, particularly in woodcuts known as lubki. Unfortunately, Cracraft does not explore the term “popular culture,” but uses it to refer to all forms of nonelite Russian culture during the eighteenth century, including forms of art sanctioned by the Church, which he terms “cult art.” (Note: The Index entry for “cult art” refers the reader to “icons.”) The overlapping concepts of “popular culture” and “cult art” are problematic, since Cracraft himself documents the Church’s opposition to the hard-to-control mass circulation prints that mixed sacred and secular themes, bowdlerized motifs from both Russian and Western high culture, and combined all of this with traditional folk imagery. Forms of “popular culture” such as the lubok certainly exhibited the influence of the Petrine cultural revolution. But Cracraft notes that Peter’s attempts to standardize the “cult art” of the Orthodox Church never really overcame the weight of the preceding tradition in sacral art. Cracraft articulates the following startling conclusion about that most enduring of native Russian artistic traditions: “The icon became the icon in Russia, the stereotype of modern Orthodox cult imagery, thanks, at least in part, to the Petrine revolution” (p. 305). This claim posits Russian iconography, at least as it is perceived today by cultural historians, as the product of Peter’s aesthetic reforms, and not merely as a precondition or context for these reforms. In this, Cracraft suggests deeper connections between sacred and secular art, as well as between popular and high culture, that he could have explored much more fully.

Cracraft’s project is an ambitious one—to insert Russia into the history of European art, taking into account the Byzantine legacy in Russia and such complex transitional periods as the seventeenth century. The volume is rich in information and ideas, but made perhaps unnecessarily ponderous by the many biographical sketches of important figures, descriptions of landmark events, and accounts of nascent formal structures. This makes the book tough going as a “read,” but admirably useful as a reference.

Both of these books are important additions to the literature on the city of St. Petersburg. The quintessentially Petersburgian project of fusing arts and letters to create a culture that materializes in urban form is still very much open to newcomers, especially those who do not consider high culture in isolated splendor apart from the rest of Russian cultural production.

Julie A. Buckler
Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, Harvard University