In the first few pages of the catalog for the new exhibit at the Princeton University Art Museum, “Mir Iskusstva: Russia’s Age of Elegance,” there is a beautiful black and white photograph of St. Isaac’s Square capturing the activity of a day sometime before 1908. Pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages amble about. The photograph is taken from a nearby roof, and the viewpoint looks down upon the square with St. Isaac’s Cathedral standing taller than anything else in sight, a symbol of Russia’s virility.
As a high school foreign exchange student, I lived a few blocks from this square in 1991, on Ulitza Gogolya. Though the facade of the cathedral was covered by tarps and scaffolding, undergoing rehabilitation, the building was no less impressive, especially to someone who had lived his entire life to that point in California and had seen few buildings older than the Craftsman home in which he grew up.
According to the exhibit catalog, “The concept of the World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) embraces more than just the society created by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexander Benois (1900-1924), the exhibitions that they curated, and the periodical of the same name (1898-1904). The World of Art also stands for one of the most important and illustrious chapters in the history of Russian Culture, inspiring a new philosophy of Russian art and a new relationship with the West.”
“Mir Iskusstva: Russia’s Age of Elegance,” is on view through June 11. The exhibit will see only three venues in the United States — the exhibit was shown previously at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha and the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis — before it returns to the Russian State Museum, to which all of the works belong.
Greg Guroff, a Princeton University graduate, Class of 1962, and president of the Foundation for International Arts and Education, is greatly responsible for the exhibition’s visit to the Princeton University campus. Guroff, who worked on the project in conjunction with the Russian State Museum, writes in his introduction to the catalog: “The brightest achievements of the World of Art are known today as the Silver Age of Russian culture that penetrated all spheres of life and transformed the souls and lives of the people of its time. Little known in the West, the World of Art is an important part of the spiritual heritage of Russia that is now being rediscovered at the turn of the new century.” Both Ellen Chances, a professor of Russian literature at Princeton with an interest in 19th, 20th, and 21st century intellectual history and the arts, and Simon Morrison of the music department, who is particularly interested in Russian opera and ballet, also wrote essays for the catalog.
The turn of the twentieth century in Russia and Europe was a period of change and excitement politically as well as artistically. Russia was struggling politically. It lost the Russo-Japanese War in 1904 and suffered revolutions in 1905 and 1917, ultimately changing from the Czarist empire into a Soviet State. And of course, it endured World War I. In Europe at this time there were a number of different art movements cohabiting and evolving: Art Nouveau, Cubism, Expressionism, Fauvism, De Stijl, Die Brucke, Die Blaue Reiter, Futurism, Constructivism, and Dada.
When I ask Betsy Rosasco, professor of art history at Princeton University, what the main draw is to this exhibit, she responds quite simply and profoundly, “You cannot see these artists in American museums. Costume designs by Bakst from the Ballets Russes period exist in American museums but there was little interest in collecting Russian art of the Mir Iskusstva period in the United States, event recently. Viewers probably know about Kandinsky and Malevich but the more conservative current represented by this group of artists is hardly known. Thus viewers can appreciate some of the best examples of works by artists they probably don’t know — Kustodiev, Somov, and others — while learning about the historical importance of the movement that elevated art for theatrical productions to the same level as ‘fine arts.’”
Rosasco says these artists were innovative and influential for that period in Russia’s culture for “they were trying to make contact with the West. They were trying to create a cosmopolitan art.” In this attempt, they involved themselves in all aspects of art and culture, including their magazines, painting, sculpture, graphic arts, and especially the ballet, where these and even more disciplines were combined.
Rosasco says: “This was to have important ramifications in Western Europe and America, as artists such as Picasso or Leger became involved with the Russian ballet. During the days of publication of the World of Art journal (1898 to 1904) some of the members of the group, such as Alexander Benois, spent large periods of time abroad in Western Europe, so the journal was both a means of presenting Russian art and artists and a conduit of art from Western Europe to Russia, resulting in a very sophisticated milieu, fully aware of artistic developments abroad. After the journal ceased publication and especially after Diaghilev and others emigrated to Western Europe, the ideals spread to Western Europe and America through the artistic creations and teachings of some of the members of the group; others stayed in what became the Soviet Union and either adpated to the new Social Realist style or had difficulties. The portraits in the ‘Mir Iskusstva’ exhibition allow the visitor to encounter these extraordinary creative personalities.”
In looking at the works produced by the World of Art it is nearly impossible to place an aesthetic trademark. The work shows a variety of influences and styles from the artists’ travels to different countries in their aim for cosmopolitanism. Take Valentin Serov’s “Portrait of Tsar Alexander III Holding a Report,” 1900, versus Nathan Altman’s “Portrait of E. V. Dzyubinskaya-Adamova,” 1915. Serov’s portrait holds to classical traditions with a strong symmetrical composition, well-rendered yet allowing the brushstrokes to be seen. Altman’s portrait is quite different, cubist in nature, with simplified, geometric facial features that trail off into a body rendered only by outline, very much in the manner of Picasso.
Rosasco says she believes the reason why this movement has been neglected by our art historical texts is that although these artists adopted Western influence, their themes remained localized, and, ultimately, the movement did not display “a trajectory into the future as art history texts trend.” According to Rosasco, the artists of the World of Art were more nostalgic for the past, rather than trying to destroy it like their contemporary, Kasimir Malevich. Malevich was the founder of the Suprematist movement, much more popular in art history texts, which, much like the Italian Futurists, denounced all previous art as archaic and useless to the current times.
In Sergei Vinogradov’s “In Summer,” 1908, the viewer sees that the “World of Art” is also sentimental. This painting depicts two women, obviously nobility, seated at a table in the backyard of a wooded, country estate, the sun trickling through tree branches. The setting is serene and complacent, yet the eye remains activated by the contrast of the blue hues in the white fabric and the shadows on the ground against the orange building behind. According to the catalog, “In Summer” was awarded a gold medal at the International Exhibition in Munich in 1909.” (It is one of Rosasco’s favorite pieces in the exhibit.)
It seems to me that the World of Art existed in a time somehow similar to the period of Glasnost, when I visited the Soviet Union and a city that was named for a time Leningrad. They were both periods where so much changed in so little time, periods of such uncertain futures. Both were marked by a certain openness to new ideas. Both were periods which redefined their cultures. But just as Gorbachev, Glasnost, and Perestroika have been outshadowed by events since then, so did history shade the World of Art. Soon after the Bolshevik revolution, as the Soviet State began to control and enforce Soviet Socialist Realism, most of the members of the World of Art emigrated and the movement was dissolved. Now, almost 100 years later, is our chance to see their work.
“Mir Iskusstva: Russia’s Age of Elegance,” through June 11, Princeton University Art Museum, Princeton University. Featuring artists of the Mir Iskusstva movement, which thrived in Russia around the turn of the 20th century. 609-258-3788.
Art for Art’s Sake, Sunday, March 12, 4 p.m., Princeton Symphony Orchestra, Richardson Auditorium. Concert in collaboration with the Princeton Art Museum and American Repertory Ballet. The program features Debussy’s Prelude a L’Apres-midi d’un faune, Stravinsky’s Suite from the Firebird, Budashkin’s Festive Overture, Lanner’s Steyrische Tanze, and Stravinsky’s Petrouchka. Pre-concert lecture by Mark Miller free to all ticket holders at 3 p.m.$15 to $60. 609-497-0020.
“Paris Discovers the World of Art in Set Designs for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes,” Wednesday, March 15, 4:30 p.m., Princeton University, McCormick 101. Lecture presented by Marian Burleigh-Motley, Metropolitan Museum of Art. 609-258-3788.
Gallery Talk, Friday, March 17, 12:30 p.m., and Sunday, March 19, 3 p.m., Princeton University Art Museum, “Art from the Land of the Firebird,” presented by Marianne Grey, museum docent. 609-258-3788.
Russian Food Festival, Sunday, April 2, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Princeton University, Prospect House. Russian-themed brunch buffet. $21.95. Register at 609-258-3455 or online at www.princeton.edu/prospecthouse.
After Hours at the Art Museum, Friday, April 7, 7:30 p.m., Princeton University Art Museum. An evening of music, refreshments, and readings of Alexander Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman.” 609-258-3788.