Written by One Kriviciute
Russia as a country has been unique in its culture since ancient times. Although part of the country belongs to Europe, Russia has huge differences from European culture. Of course, the big cultural difference was determined by the prevailing orthodoxy in Russia, and of course by the difference in political structure from the rest of Europe. After breaking away from the European cultural bubble, Russian culture has created a different periodization from the European one. This cultural difference is particularly visible in Russian paintings. Paintings are like a reflection of culture, presenting what people live for, what they care about, and what is the basis of their culture. Russian culture is best represented by religious icons. They show not only fragments of the Orthodox religion, but also Russian cultures such as the Siberians, their pagan heritage, and fragments of state history. Religious icons are a mirror to look at Russian culture. They reflect more than just religion, they reflect the culture of the entire country, the basis of Russian culture. Around the 10th century, the first known icons were painted. But it didn’t take long for them to move out of the shrines, and they were hung everywhere, in homes, public places, churches, and even hanging on the side of the road. Of course, all of them were blessed by the priest, therefore acquired not only an artistic meaning but also a religious one. Icons are typically painted on wood, often small or much larger, in churches and monasteries, sometimes made as a panel painting, on a flat panel made of wood with several pieces joined together to create the whole image. An icon is like a prayer depicted in a work of art, art and religion are intertwined in them. A large part of the icons can be seen in Sant Peterburg in the State Hermitage and the State Museum of the History of Religion, some of them even dating back to the beginning of the 16th century, or even earlier times. Of course, viewing icons in museums will only be a visual acquaintance, to feel them, you need to visit the Orthodox churches, to see not only the environment but also to feel the smells, to see people stumbling and praying before the holy icons, then you will feel what icons mean in Russian culture.
However, the unique art of Russia is not limited to religious icons. When the revolution started in 19XX, it changed not only political life, but the revolution has also made a huge change in daily life, which means that cultural life changed too. After the royal family was no longer there, and after they were replaced by violent movements, art changed from gorgeous and shining like golden icons, art became colder, with clear figures, and forms. When talking about art it is very important to mention the unique art movement of the 20th century, which changed both the artistic and social life of the country – Avant-garde art. Russian avant-garde included various art movements such as Cubism, Futurism, Neo-primitivism, Constructivism and Suprematism.
After the revolution, art became under the supervision of political forces, it was restricted, and art became a political tool. Even the most famous artists had to adapt to politics. For example, even the most famous Avant-garde painter Kazimir Malevich, the founder of Suprematism, was worshipped at the beginning of the revolution, but Stalinism quickly cracked down on the freedom of artists, Abstraction was banned, and Social Realism became officially recognized art by political parties.
Art was subject to rules, how and what should be depicted, so the art of that time is best reflected in posters. They depict the art approved by the political party, the government, and what was wanted to be shown to the country.
The key artists of Russian Avant-garde were Wassily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich. These two have made the most famous Avant-garde paintings, that best represents the whole art movement. Kandinsky with his abstractionism and Malevich a father of Suprematism, both artists have not only made influenced Russian art but also brought new winds to the world art field. Also, another artist who made a big influence on Russian Avant-garde art and created a new environment for everyday art was Alexander Rodchenko. He was a founding member of Russian Constructivism—the avant-garde movement characterized by unembellished abstraction. He is known for his politically motivated photography, posters, paintings, and sculpture. his works combine painting, photography, art and politics. This is an excellent example of the art of the time, which was demanded by the government.
It is important to understand that not all art had a chance to see world light, many of them were banned because they were inappropriate to political ideology. Although the Russian avant-garde, that had reached Europe‘s art audience had been recognized in Europe, it had been banned in the Soviet Union during Joseph Stalin’s rule and through the 1960s. Art that didn’t fit, as everything during that historical period – didn‘t last long are they paintings, sculptures, policies or indeed people. Perhaps these inappropriate works of art would have disappeared into obscurity if not for the people who understood their importance and sought to preserve them. One of them was a man, painter, and archaeologist – Igor Sawicki. He created a museum in the remote desert of Uzbekistan, where he stored thousands of works of art. What Sawicki managed to save from Stalin’s terrible sentence – extermination, was placed in the Sabicki museum in Nukus, Uzbekistan and now is regarded as the greatest collection of Russian avant-garde art in the World.
Of course, you don’t need to travel to a distant desert to see avant-garde art, you just need to visit a museum to experience it. Many works that perfectly represent that period are in the Hermitage. On 29 January 2022, the exhibition “Russian Avant-Garde. Revolution in the Arts” opened in the Hermitage–Amsterdam Exhibition Centre. The extensive display presented items from the collection of the State Hermitage represented a turning point in the history, about 20th-century art. The exhibition featured more than 500 items, the majority of which come from a period between the start of the 20th century and the mid-1950s. There were paintings and works of graphic art, books, textiles, and porcelain, that perfectly represented the Avant-garde movement in Russia.
As a turning point in history, 20th-century has changed not just the political world, it had changed the art world too. The whole Avant-garde movement shows the role that art plays in building support for ruling regimes, whether it be through narrative scenes or propagandistic posters. What makes this art movement interesting is that it reflects not only the artistic side of the country but also the political side. The change in art from golden icons to greyish posters perfectly represents the change in Russian culture in the 20th century and what power art has in presenting the period in which we live.