The Russian School of Painting/Chapter II
< The Russian School of Painting
Chapter I
The Russian School of Painting by Alexandre Benois, translated byAvrahm Yarmolinsky
Chapter II.
Classicism
Chapter III
CHAPTER II
CLASSICISM
S
HUVALOV'S ACADEMY did not last more than five years. The Empress Catherine, unfavourably disposed toward the founder of the institution, put at the head of it I. I. Betzkoy, who enjoyed her personal favour and bore the reputation at the court, of a great educator. Unfortunately, Betzkoy proved in reality little more than a naive and rather stubborn dilettante, and the harm he did to the education of Russian youth was in no wise diminished by those good intentions, with which, a true son of his "idealistic" age, he overflowed. The effects of Betzkoy's incompetence were strongly felt in the Academy. In his eagerness to form fine characters, the new director lost sight of the main purpose of the institution as an art school. Something in the nature of a branch of the Foundling Hospital was established at the Academy. Here were presently accepted young children, who, in most cases, had no time to show any aptitude for art. As for the artistic part of the instruction, it was definitively subordinated to the æsthetic formalism, which
has retained the name of academic classicism. For many reasons, among which the discovery of Pompeii played no small part, the West at that time was passing through something like a second classical Renaissance. The characteristic culture of the eighteenth century—that strange, morbid, and yet charming blossom—was rapidly withering. The chilling approach of the nineteenth century was felt in the air. Roman republican ideas were pressing the monarchical principle hard; the gay, carefree rococo was pining away, giving place to the stern Vitruvius, and the graceful fashions of Watteau and DeTroy were being gradually replaced by "antique" tunics, while Lessing, Winkelmann, Mengs and David were expounding the æsthetics of the new age.
Academies had existed ever since the end of the sixteenth century, since the times of Carracci. But originally Academies were a wholly sane and desirable reaction against the dissolute mannerism of the late Renaissance. Gradually they became something in the nature of official departments of art. Here sat artists, well balanced, always ready to carry out, in strict conformity with the rules of the school, the bidding of the authorities, that is of the monarch and his court. Yet, for a long time the mediæval guild principle did not cease to guide these institutions. It was the best
and most skilful masters who gathered here. They accepted obediently the various changes in taste and fashion, but conferred upon everything a certain reserve and prudence. Æsthetics, in the sense of a theory of the beautiful, scarcely influenced them, as the plastic arts at that time had not yet become a subject of æsthetic theorising. It is natural that the Academies could not have a decisive influence on the course of æsthetic development. They exerted a salutary influence on art technique, for the educational institutions, supervised and directed by the academicians, were really excellent art schools.
The second half of the eighteenth century presents a different spectacle. For some time the Academies struggle against the new classical movement, but, later on, they accept it in toto and for a period of a hundred years become its main bulwark. The terms Academy and Classicism become synonymous. At the same time the centre of artistic taste and artistic opinion shifts from the court to the Academies. Rigid and elaborate artistic doctrines make their appearance, and find the firmest support in the Academies. The former court departments became something like oligarchical "parliaments," whose verdicts in the sphere of artistic problems are not subject to appeal.—Moreover, the artistic education, which remained in their hands, is entirely
dominated by the new state of affairs. What is now taught in the art schools is not how to surmount technical difficulties, but what to consider beautiful and therefore what subjects to treat. "Academic" education becomes permeated with the classical spirit.
Much has been said about this academical classicism. There is no doubt that the so-called "David" theories are responsible for a great deal of formalism and coldness, yet it would hardly be just to allow oneself to be blinded by hate of formal æsthetics to such a degree as to overlook its good sides. Classicism killed gracefulness and life, but together with these it also killed mannerism. To its credit is that thorough artistic education, on which grew up Ingres, and on which Dégas, Ingres' greatest admirer, was brought up. In Russia, too, classicism had rather beneficent effects. We cannot expect excellent results of a system which undertook to form artists out of men, many of whom were completely lacking in natural endowments. At any rate, this rigid education gave several masters an opportunity to become prominent. Although devoid of temperament, they accumulated at the Academy a great deal of well-digested knowledge, which they were able to transmit to their more gifted pupils.
Losenko was the first of these art teachers, who inaugurated and cultivated strict artistic schooling in
Russia. He endeavoured to turn the artistic education from technical practice to æsthetic theory. This tendency becomes more intelligible, if we take into consideration the fact that Losenko studied in Paris under Vien, the forerunner and teacher of David. He even published an atlas of the proportions of the ideal human figure. Losenko's successors in the field of art education were Akimov, Ugryumov, Shebuyev, Yegorov and Audrey Ivanov.
Early in the nineteenth century this group of artists were looked upon as "the Russian School of Painting," and there were even patriotic enthusiasts who believed they would raise Russia above the West. But this was a naïve mistake. In reality, these masters were little more than imitators of no individuality. Their excellent schooling, unsupported by any considerable natural gift, was of little use for their own artistic efforts. This schooling, however, enabled them to furnish their pupils—Kiprensky, Varnek, P. Sokolov, Bryullov, and partly Bruni—with that thorough preparation to which the latter owe the prominent places that they will forever hold in the history of Russian art.
The art of Akimov (1754–1814) was at one time praised unreservedly: "one finger painted by him," it was said, "is worth an entire picture of another painter." But, of course, these ecstasies are to be
explained only by the academic æsthetics of the time. The contemporaries, treated truly great masters, such as Levitzky and Borovikovsky, with little more than contempt, because their pictures reproduced—with consummate perfection—nothing but nature. On the contrary, people swooned before "Akimov's finger," because it was presented according to all the rules and regulations of the "noble style." Akimov, however, still belongs to the eighteenth century. Just like his comrades Kozlov, Puchinov, and P. I. Sokolov, who died prematurely, he did not completely side with the intolerant fanatics of classicism. He is in quest of graceful lines and gorgeous drapery, and does not disdain "opera-house" effects, such as curved helmets and baroco plumages. This artist, who at the age of ten entered the Academy to escape utter poverty, was too much steeped in the spirit of the epigones of rococo, the traces of which are also discoverable in the first two Russian "historical" painters: Kozlov and Losenko (it is enough to remember the "St. Peter" of the first in the Museum of Alexander III, and the "Hector and Andromaque" of the second in the Academy). During his travel abroad, Akimov took a long time before reaching Rome, and at Bologna, where he was ordered to stay, he could not improve his style by the study of the manneristic masters of the seventeenth century. On his
return from foreign parts, this son of a simple composer received, owing to his achievements and genteel manners, the highest honours an artist could possibly be granted at that time. He held the office of director of the Tapestry Manufactory, gave lessons to the sons of the crown-prince, and finally, in 1796, was elected director of the Academy.
"Akimov was an intelligent artist," says Ugryumov's biographer, in 1824, "but his manner of execution could not be instructive for the young artists. A man had to come who would call their attention to true beauty, and who, in his own creations, would set an example worthy of imitation." Such an example for the young appeared in the person of Ugryumov, the teacher of Yegorov and Shebuyev, who in their turn taught Kiprensky and Bryullov. Ugryumov was, indeed, a more definite representative of the new tendencies. Baroco art held no temptations for him. He devoted himself wholly to the imitation of the ancient works of art, the Farnese Hercules being his chief favourite. Few of his works have reached us, but his best painting—"Yan Usmovich"—in the Academy of Art—and several drawings of his are characteristic examples of his striving to approach the ancients in power and grandeur. It seems, however, that Ugryumov was no soulless, routine academicist. Those of his portraits—he
painted quite a few of them—which have come down to us are rather characteristic. For the Mikhailovo Castle he executed two gigantic compositions from Russian history: "The Capture of Kazan," and "The Coronation of Mikhail Fedorovich." Both of them are completely devoid of historical truth, nor are they distinguished by any artistic gracefulness. If they are remarkable at all, it is rather as monuments of an interest in the Russian past, inaugurated before the advent of Karamzin.[1] Moreover, these colossal canvases executed with perfect scholastic orderliness, testify to the progress made by the academic school of painting in Russia.
Two of Ugryumov's pupils were the true fathers in Russia of a strict classicism, in the manner of David, Carstens, and Camucini. These were Yegorov (1776–1851), who won the appellation of "the Russian Raphael," and Shebuyev (1777–1855), who was known among his contemporaries as "the Russian Poussin." Yet, even these masters, when compared with their western models, seem little more than poor imitators. What in David and his pupils was conviction and ecstasy, was replaced, in Yegorov and Shebuyev, by
scholastic diligence and a blind faith in the incontrovertibility of the foreign æsthetic doctrine. All the stranger then, appears to us the delight of their contemporaries in this impersonal art. The enthusiasts of our national painting went as far as to prefer the "austerity" of Yegorov and Shebuyev to the "mannerism" of the French and Italian schools. In reality, these Russian masters were even colder, even more devoid of life than their models, but they were far from having the colossal knowledge of David, Guérin, Girodet, Ingres, and even of the Italians Camucini, Pinelli and others. Shebuyev's most refined compositions betray the Russian model and somehow reveal a distant connection with the feeble icon painters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As to Yegorov, there is in him more scholastic drill than ardour: all his works are rather school-room compositions than the result of free, significant artistic efforts.
These two masters are cold, common-place, and, to a considerable degree, impotent. Yet, despite their failings, it cannot be said that there is nothing agreeable in their works. Of course, their most celebrated productions are their worst. Such are: Yegorov's icons, his "Flagellation of Our Saviour," and Shebuyev's famous, but rather ineffective plafond in the Tzarskoye Selo Church. But their drawings, sketches and studies are
quite pleasant. There lingers on them the reflection of the never-fading beauty of classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and although the reflection is very faint and misty, it has retained, to a certain degree, its enchantment. Whoever is able to delight in a "beautiful" composition, whoever can be moved by the unassuming beauty of interweaving rounded lines, will find pleasure—a somewhat unsavoury pleasure, perhaps—in the innumerable drawings of the two masters, which are treasured in our museums and private collections.
Along with Shebuyev and Yegorov must be mentioned Alexander Ivanov's father—the excellent draughtsman Audrey Ivanov (1775–1848). He was not untouched by the influence of the eighteenth century. The symbolical figure of "Glory" in his picture, "The Duel of Mstislav and Rededya" looks as if it had just left one of Rastrelli's plafonds. His Pechenyeg, so properly stretched at the feet of the "youthful citizen of Kiev," petrified in the race, is doubtlessly akin to the Marses of the baroco mythology. But his knowledge of the human body was, perhaps, greater than that of his more famous colleagues, especially of Shebuyev. The figures of the naked youths in the above-mentioned picture as well as the stroke, firm, and to a certain extent agreeable in its sureness and smoothness, reveal in the master a great fund of technical knowledge. But
this found almost no application, partly because Ivanov was too much absorbed by his duties at the Academy and by casual icon orders—which plagued the life out of most of our artists,—and partly because, his knowledge remained mere knowledge and found no response in the inner world of the artist, who remained, to his dying hour, nothing but an old-fashioned bureaucrat. The seeds of the wonderful classical beauty fell in Russia, in most cases, on hard, sterile soil of provincial shallow-mindedness.
Count T. P. Tolstoy (1783–1873) and Ivan Ivanov (1779–1848) form an exception. The first, a highly educated and kindly man, illustrated Bogddnovitch's tale, "The Darling," with an understanding of feminine beauty and a delicate sense of antiquity, which reminds one of Prudhon. The second, distinguished by neither great talent nor vivid imagination, retains a place of honour in the history of Russian painting owing to his vignettes, delicate, exquisite, and, sometimes, witty. True it is that four of our best artists: Kiprensky, Bryullov, Bruni, and Ivanov—were alumni of the Academy and ardent followers of the doctrines they had been taught. But, at the same time their great native gifts made them, against their own will and consciousness, the most decided enemies of the Academy. Consequently, the discussion of their
artistic efforts and achievements belongs to another division of this study, devoted, not to the Russian Academicism, but to the sparks of Romanticism which flashed in their art, despite the connection of these masters with the Academy.
In addition to Ugryumov, Shebuyev, and Yegorov, the Academy sent out several other artists, absolutely faithful to its spirit. The paintings of these masters: Rodchev, Sukhikh, Bezsonov, Kryukov, Volkov, have remained on the walls in the Academic Museum. The organisers of the Museum of Alexandre III could not persuade themselves to transport this collection of decent, but really dull school-room exercises, to the treasury of the national art.
Karamzin, Nikolay Mikhaylovich (1765–1826), the author of the monumental "History of the Russian State," was the first to arouse a popular interest in the Russian past. (Translator's note.)
Last edited on 29 August 2019, at 06:18
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