The Russian School of Painting/Foreword
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 The Russian School of Painting byAlexandre Benois, translated byAvrahm Yarmolinsky
Chapter I
If we follow, in the history of painting, the attitude of artists of different epochs and nations toward their art, if we consider what is to them more essential: painting itself or the ideas painting conveys, we notice two fundamental currents in artistic activity. One has sprung from an exclusive quest for beauty, the source of the other is the desire to impress, by means of painting, something amusing, or instructive, or denunciatory. Some artists gave expression in their works to their sentiment of beauty without any doctrinaire motive whatsoever; others used painting as a mere auxiliary for the purpose of expressing ideas of a completely non-artistic order. In the latter case painting was domineered by literature, philosophy, and religion; it played a subsidiary rôle.
Sometimes, however, these currents flowed together. In times of intense religious fervour, or in the art of isolated religious individuals the quest for beauty in painting mingled inseparably with the expression of their religious and philosophical views. It is in such epochs and by such men that there were created the
greatest works of art, quite as rich in extrapictorial thought as they were beautiful from the standpoint of purely artistic merit. On the contrary, in epochs of weakening faith the quest for beauty assumed a narrowly æsthetic, specific character, and little by little art swerved into scholasticism, or academicism. Finally, in epochs dominated by the capitalistic, non-religious pursuit of earthly welfare, painting was subjected to social demands. Casting away all thought of beauty, which by some theoreticians was confused with ethical and political principles, men forced art to serve social ideas—either as a denunciatory weapon or as an instructive amusement.
In each of these currents there appears much of what is curious and precious. Yet not everything is curious and precious to an equal degree. If some works are self-sufficient and eternally youthful artistic revelations, other productions seem, when compared with those to have sprung from the petty cares of life, which mirror the vanity of passing interests, or, it appears, are the fruit borne by a deadening scholastic routine. A considerable portion of Russian painting—of the Western type—is distinguished by these very traits and has so little in common with the true nature of beauty, that the question may even arise whether it ought to be considered from the purely æsthetic standpoint, and
whether this element ought to be given a place in the history of Russian art.
Iconoclasm of whatever sort, however, is not in accordance with the spirit of our times. He who in the name of service to a great and pure ideal would rise against petty worldly art or would ban those works which are too dependent on the scholastic model, would gain the name of a Vandal, of a narrow-minded and wild fanatic. The striking example of Hogarth corroborates the thesis that the history of art must include all the important artistic phenomena, even if they do not meet the purely æsthetic demands. Hogarth scoffs most unceremoniously at the precepts of Apollo; he came closest to the literary pamphlet and the facetious "novella." Yet, who will raise his hand to do away with this keen saucy buffoon? There is no question here of his great genuinely pictorial gift, to which, however, he paid too little attention and which showed itself so rarely in his pictures. Hogarth must maintain a place of honour in the history of art, which is but a part of the records of human culture. We owe him this—if for no other reason—because of the marvellous documentation of his pictures, which lends them the melancholy charm that only echoes of bygone times possess.
Likewise, we must not ignore works of purely scholastic merit. It is certain that the living ideal in
such works, turned into a dry-as-dust and dead pattern, has become petrified, but even on such works rests the faint reflection of beauty, and they are able to please, though not to transport with delight. If, however, nothing—not even what is of slight importance—is to be ignored, a just proportion must be preserved in the exposition, and works absolutely beautiful must be preferred to productions relatively interesting. The most impartial history must not lose sight of this proportionality—otherwise it runs the risk of forfeiting its fundamental character and dissolving into utter confusion.
In the exposition of the history of Russian art, more than anywhere else, it is important to be guided by these principles of many-sidedness, tolerance, and harmonious proportionality. The study of Russian painting from a purely artistic standpoint would bring us to such unexpected and odd conclusions that accusations of incompleteness and partiality would inevitably follow. For the number of purely artistic aspects is less in the Russian School of Painting than in any other. A considerable period of Russian painting passed under the sign of academicism, and scarcely did it free itself from its trammels, when it found itself involved in the complex mechanism of "the social movement." During the two hundred years of the existence of Western
art in Russia, it has produced very few phenomena of a purely artistic character. To dwell on the merits solely of this element would mean to narrow the task of the historian to a paradoxical degree. On the other hand, the most indulgent historian in his studies of Russian painting must not let slip through his fingers a definite ideal standard, by means of which alone he can clear up the purely artistic significance of each phenomenon. Only when assisted by such an ideal measure will he be able, after giving due credit to the local and temporary significance of a number of artistic productions, to single out and shed light on those phases of Russian artistic life, on which rests the reflection of the eternal and all-human enchantment of beauty.
Last edited on 29 August 2019, at 06:17
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