A Brief Overview of Major Movements in Russian Art after 1850

The 1850s marks a shift in the development of Russian art. During this decade, a division emerged between what might be called the classical and modern eras of Russian art. For the first time, the power of the conservative St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts was challenged by a group of young and idealistic painters who believed in the didactic power of art to communicate social and political messages. The academy also lost much authority with the deaths of two of its most renowned painters, Karl Briullov and Aleksandr Ivanov.

The Wanderers

This group of painters existed roughly from the 1860s until the late 1880s. The emergence of the group coincided with the development of literary realism. Like the prose writers Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, the painters of this group emphasized social and political dimensions of art rather than formal aesthetic features. The Wanderers were highly influenced by the flowering of the democratic movement led by Nikolai Cherneshevsky. Favorite subjects of the Wanderers included the Russian peasantry, Russian landscapes, historical events, and Russian political and clerical figures. Fiercely patriotic, the Wanderers discouraged ties with European art and, in particular, frowned upon the developing movement of Impressionism in the west. The group’s main theoretician was the critic Vladimir Stasov. Important members of the Wanderers included Ivan Kramskoi, Vasily Perov, Ilia Repin, and Vasiliy Surikov. Perov’s Easter Procession (1861), Repin’s Volga Barge-Haulers (1870-1873), and Surikov’s Boiarina Morozova (1887) and The Morning of the Execution of the Strel’tsy (1881) are excellent examples of the work of the Wanderers.

An important factor in the changes that took place in Russian art in the 1880s and 1890s was the establishment of artists’ colonies by wealthy patrons. Industrialization in Russia had led to the migration of peasants from the countryside to major cities. With this shift in location, native Russian art traditions began to be lost. Members of the industrialist autocracy began to realize the significance of this loss of cultural heritage and decided to create places where artists could gather and study native Russian art. Two such places were Savva Mamontov’s estate outside Moscow called Abramtsevo (which you can still visit today) and Princess Tenisheva’s estate Talashkino located near Smolensk. Artists who participated in these workshops were encouraged to pay attention to traditional Russian art. This helped pave the way for the extraordinary achievements of “The World of Art.”

The World of Art

The World of Art was a circle of young artists, philosophers, writers, and musicians that appeared in the early 1890s in St. Petersburg. The group emerged in opposition to the staid traditions of the previous generation represented by the Wanderers. Advocating an “art for art’s sake” approach and a Wagnerian synthesis of the arts, they rejected the Wanderers’ naturalistic canvases that drew upon political and social themes. The leader of “The World of Art” was the dynamic figure, Sergei Diaghilev, and their main theoretician was the artist and art critic, Aleksandr Benois. Among the many artists who joined their ranks were Konstanin Somov, Lev Bakst, Evgenii Lancere, Mstislav Dobuzhinskii, and Ivan Bilibin. The group was eclectic in nature and never rallied around one particular or concrete set of principles. Instead, they drew on a variety of influences to create a resurgence of interest in the arts. They were attracted in particular to the art of the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth- centuries and created many images of old St. Petersburg. Among their favorite painterly subjects were stylized depictions of old estate gardens, masquerades, and the figures of the commedia dell’arte (Harlequin, Pierrot, and Columbine). With the help of wealthy patrons, they produced an innovative journal of literature and the arts called The World of Art (1898-1904). This journal, filled with colorful reproductions and decorative graphics, contained articles on both native Russian art and European art. Led by Diaghilev, the group also sponsored a series of exhibitions under the same title, “The World of Art.” Later after the first wave of “The World of Art” had ended, Diaghilev recruited many of the artists associated with the group to work with him on the Ballets Russes. The last official exhibition of “The World of Art” took place in Paris in 1927. Prior to World War I, “The World of Art” had a tremendous impact on Russian painting, book illustration, theatrical design, architecture, and sculpture. Its members were responsible for encouraging artistic ties between Europe and Russia and, in general, fostering a new appreciation for the synthetic possibilities of the arts.

The Russian Avant-Garde

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Russian artists were introduced to the latest developments in European art. Rich merchant-patrons provided a source of patronage for the arts and opened their private collections of art to the viewing public. Thus within their own country, Russian artists were exposed to such contemporary European art movements as Expressionism, Cubism, and Futurism. Young Russian artists also travelled extensively, visiting the studios of western artists and major European museums. A variety of new artistic groupings emerged in this intense and energetic time. New theoretical programs were devised and published in manifestoes, and numerous exhibitions of contemporary painting were organized. Russian artists used material from their own folk and religious traditions and incorporated the latest ideas emerging in the European context to create some of the most experimental art of the period. They explored the limits of verisimillitude, leaving behind what they perceived to be the strictures of representational art, as they turned ultimately to the creation of non-objective, abstract canvases.

Both painters and poets of the avant-garde shared a desire to work out new ideas in visually unconventional ways. Whether on canvas or in the creation of theatrical productions, whether in manuscript books or in the layout of text of individual poems on the printed page, artists and writers experimented with abstract representations. While painters were interested in such concepts as the “surface-plane,” “texture,” and “color,” poets were attempting to explore – through something they called “trans-sense” language, the basic components of the word itself.

The incredible artistic energy of these pre-revolutionary groups culminated in the period just after the Russian Revolution. In the years immediately following 1917, artists were recruited by the reigning political authorities to reconceptualize the role of art in society. Numerous theories were debated; new art schools were established; and leading artists battled for control over the new artistic ideology being formed. Eventually, the vigorous debates and experimentation of the late teens and early twenties disappeared under the increasingly rigorous control of artists by the Soviet political leadership.


The main representatives of the neo-primitivist movement are Natal’ia Goncharova (1881-1962) and Mikhail Larionov (1881-1964). Their painting combines a nationalistic attention to folk and religious art and an expressionistic style informed by the work of such painters as Van Gogh and Gauguin. Goncharova’s painting The Evangelists (1910-11) combines the influence of the icon-painting tradition with the strong lines and colors of the Fauves. In 1912 the painting was deemed too blasphemous to be shown. Goncharova’s The Cyclist (1912-1913), with its emphasis on speed and machine animation, reflects the influence of the Italian Futurists both in color and feeling. Goncharova’s work attracted the attention of Diaghilev, who commissioned her to design the settings and costumes for a number of his Ballets Russes productions.

Like his partner, Goncharova, Larionov was heavily influenced by Russian folk art, especially the lubki, the popular wood engravings. He challenged tradition with his coarse drawings of human figures, which are marked by a child-like simplicity and crudeness of line. A good example of his neo-primitivist work is his series of depictions of soldiers, which he completed after serving in the military in 1908-09.

Seminal exhibitions that contained neo-primitivist work included the “Jack of Diamonds” exhibition in Moscow in 1910 and “The Donkey’s Tail” exhibition held in March of 1912.


Cubo-Futurism is marked by close connections between poets and painters. The five pivotal figures of Cubo-Futurism were Aleksei Kruchenykh, the brothers David and Vladimir Burliuk, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Benedikt Livshitz. The main tenet of the Cubo-Futurist credo was a belief in the need for a break with the past. This, this group disdained existing painting traditions; they rejected most ardently the Russian tradition of realism, which included not only the Wanderers, but also “The World of Art” group, and Symbolism with all its inherent mysticism. They were influenced by French Cubism and Italian Futurism, in particular; however, with the onset of World War I, they became increasingly interested in forming a new national art that would contribute to society and parallel new ideas in economics and politics. Passionate about reconnecting art to everyday life, they staged intentionally provocative events in order to arouse public response. For example, they were fascinated for a time with face-painting and even wrote a manifesto entitled “Why We Paint Ourselves.” They also created a controversial Cubo-Futurist opera entitled Victory over the Sun, which was performed three times in Petersburg in 1913. The painter Malevich, the poet Kruchenykh, and the painter-musician Matiushin collaborated on this project. The Cubo-Futurists projected self-confident energy and enthusiasm for experimental painting. Perhaps some of the best examples of the work of Cubo-Futurists are the collaborative books they created using mixed typefaces and many different kinds of illustration, including paintings, engravings, and drawings. One might look, for example, at Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov’s Igra v adu (1912), which was illustrated by Goncharova.


Rayonism cannot be considered a genuine movement, but the term refers to an important set of experimental paintings completed by Larionov and Goncharova and exhibited in 1913. These compositions depict rays of light intersecting with tangible objects and dissolving in shifting patterns. In his manifesto on the topic, Larionov announced his interest in the effect of light rays on objects and forms. Larionov was inspired by Cubist and Futurist paintings, and his work foreshadows the development of total abstraction in Russian painting. In Goncharova’s paintings of this sort, the objects struck by the rays of light are more discernible, and, indeed, her compositions tend to be less abstract that Larionov’s.


Kazimir Malevich (1878-1935) was a critically important and intriguing member of the avant-garde. He was a painter of humble Polish-Russian background, who was essentially self-educated. Despite his lack of formal education, he produced a great deal of theoretical writing. He absorbed many of the trends around him, including a fascination with the icon, the lubok, and Expressionism. Malevich was the creator of Suprematism, a system of painting proclaimed in 1915. The most famous example of this type of painting is Malevich’s Black Square, which was exhibited in 1915. In his mature style, Malevich believed that painting was not about creating representations of objects or people, but rather about thinking on canvas. For Malevich, painting was the art of discovering visual analogues for internal experience and consciousness. His Suprematist paintings consist of simple geometric shapes in solid planes of color. He was inspired by the pseudo-religious ideas of theosophy and also the mystical writings of Piotr Uspensky, a psychologist and philosopher. In 1918, after completing a series of paintings called White on White, Malevich essentially gave up painting and turned to architecture.


Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) was the founder of Constructivism, a movement begun in 1921 and based on the utilitarian function of the materials of art, what Tatlin called an organic synthesis of architecture, sculpture and painting. Constructivists emphasized, in particular, the tactile qualities of material and the use of non-art materials in their paintings and sculptures. Inspired by modern technology and the new notion of the factory, the Constructivists embraced the new arts of cinema, photography, and industrial design. An intense rival of Malevich’s, Tatlin proclaimed not the importance of the picture plane, but rather the significance of volume in art. Tatlin’s unrealized Plan for the Third International (1919-1920) combined the engineering aspects of Constructivism with social commitment.

See this website for a picture of the plan for the monument: http://www.auburn.edu/academic/liberal_arts/foreign/russian/art/tatlin-tower.htm

The monument was planned as a massive structure which would stand in Petrograd and serve as the executive command center of the Workers’ International. The shift from interest in easel painting to industrial and machine culture was advocated by such art critics as Nikolai Tarabukhin, the author of From the Easel to the Machine.

Aleksandr Rodchenko was a leading advocate of this new movement. His minimalist paintings shown in 1921 were a farewell gesture to what he believed was the tired art of studio painting. Other significant participants in this group were Varvara Stepanova, El Lissitsky, Aleksandra Ekster, and Liubov Popova.

Other Prominent Artists in Russian Modernism

Mikhail Vrubel

Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910) was born in Omsk in 1956 to a Polish father and a Russian mother. In 1874, he moved to St. Petersburg to study law, but like many other Russian painters of the time, gave up on a law career and turned to art instead. In 1880, he entered the Academy of Fine Arts and embarked on a new path that would lead to a remarkable body of painting. Inspired both by western art and native Russian art (icons, fresco, mosaic, and folk art), Vrubel invented his own synthetic style. His paintings are highly-stylized, that is, they depart from the realist tradition in which he was educated, and manifest his passion for color, line, and geometrical arrangement of the picture. Fascinated by Lermontov’s long poem, The Demon (1829-39), Vrubel repeatedly portrayed the image of the devil on canvas. These paintings became his most famous. Vrubel’s demon became symbolic of the artist’s own struggles with mental illness. Eventually, he was placed in an insane asylum, where he lost his vision in 1906 and died four years later. At his funeral in 1910, the poet Aleksandr Blok delivered Vrubel’s eulogy.

Vasiliy Kandinsky

Vasiliy Kandinsky (1866-1944) decided on an art career late in life. He left the law profession and turned to painting at the age of 30. Kandinsky split his time between Russia and Germany and encouraged artistic ties between the two countries. Fascinated by the expressive potential of color, Kandinsky began to experiment with the correspondences between color and emotion and created canvases on which colored forms take on an existence apart from any real objects. In his theoretical writings, such as Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he tried to define the expressive characteristics of different colors and also the links between color and sound. He is best known for three sets of paintings, Improvisations (1909), Impressions (1911), and Compositions (1910-1913). Kandinsky discovered a whole new kind of dynamic pictorial space, in which conventions of perspective are completely abandoned. Like Malevich, Kandinsky was a forerunner in the development of abstract art.

Marc Chagall

Marc Chagall’s (1887-1985) work is singular for the period; his paintings are highly recognizable, but difficult to link to any particular school or movement. His paintings remained representational, although they contain dreamlike, illogical qualities to them. In this sense, Chagall’s work anticipates Dada and Surrealism. His work is populated by rural peasant folk, Jewish rabbis, village musicians, and animals, and often contains biblical themes. Chagall was an important figure in the post-revolutionary art scene; he led an influential art academy in Vitebsk for a time.

Pavel Filonov

Pavel Filonov’s (1883-1941) work is also highly individual and distinctive. He is known for his extraordinarily delicate, intricate, and time-consuming work; he often labored for eighteen hours a day on his paintings. Even though his paintings are in oil, they give the impression of watercolor. They depict people and objects, landscapes and dreams, broken into tiny bits of color, giving the viewer an overwhelming feeling that she is gazing at a mosaic instead of a painting. Filonov was interested in children’s art and also the art of the insane.

Socialist Realism

Socialist Realism was embraced by Stalin in 1934 and adopted as the only style possible to fulfill the demands of the new Soviet state. The Socialist Realist ideology governed art in the Soviet Union for the next fifty years and effectively ended the search for new forms of artistic expression that had dominated Russia in the early twentieth century. Abstraction was rejected in favor of art forms that promoted what was perceived as “politically correct.” In a way, the unbending aesthetic of this period echoed the ideas of the Wanderers, who had insisted on the social function of art. However, unlike the Wanderers, the proponents of Socialist Realism believed more in projecting images of the ideal Soviet reality than the real conditions of the people. According to advocates of Socialist Realism, the job of the artist was to promote the heroic and optimistic elements of Soviet life as if they were reality itself. They believed that art should always be instructive and useful. New and unswerving demands were placed on artists to present positive and life-affirming portraits of Soviet leaders and citizens, scenes of the ideal worker and peasant, images of Russian military victories, and so on. Those artists who refused to honor the new dictates of Soviet art, as designed by the new All-Russian Academy of Arts (established in 1932), were labelled “formalists” and often faced active persecution. For several decades, the only art that was able to be viewed in museums, galleries, or public sites was Socialist Realist art. Socialist Realist art contains repetitive themes and subjects (hearty, young people at work; vigorous, happy leaders shaking hands with grateful citizens; vibrant scenes of hearty peasants, etc.) and can by characterized by a monumentality of style. Examples of Soviet Realist art include Vasily Yefanov’s An Unforgettable Encounter(1936) and Sergei Gerasimov’s Stalin and Voroshilov at the Kremlin (1938). Socialist Realism dominated not only the fine arts of painting and sculpture, but also architecture.

Supplementary Biographies of Individual Russian Painters

Natal’ia Goncharova

Natal’ia Sergeevna Goncharova was born in 1881 of distinguished lineage; her great aunt was married to Pushkin! Her father was an architect. Goncharova loved the Russian countryside from an early age, and it became one of the central motifs of her painting. Although she briefly flirted with the idea of pursuing a medical or history degree, Goncharova turned to art in 1898 when she began to attend sculpture classes at the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture. About the time she graduated, she met Mikhail Larionov, who convinced her to switch to painting. Initially, she painted in an impressionist style, but soon turned to more expressionist and primitive styles. Her breakthrough came after 1908, the year when the art patron, Nikolai Riabushinsky, introduced Moscow to modern French painting. For the first time, Goncharova saw post-impressionist paintings and also the work of the Fauves. Her cycle, The Fruit Harvest (1909) shows the influence of French painting, particularly Gauguin and Picasso. She also began to pay attention to native Russian art traditions, such as the icon and lubok. Her first mature works date from 1910, when she began to depict specifically Russian subjects. Along with Larionov, she started a new style of painting in Russia called Neo-Primitivism. The Evangelists (1910) recall icons in the iconostasis while at the same time they evoke the strength of Russian peasant figures. In 1910, Goncharova and Larionov played a role in the creation of a group of young avant-garde painters called “The Knave of Diamonds.” In 1913, she held her first large one-woman exhibition, at which 700 paintings were shown! At this time, Goncharova also began her collaborations with Russian Futurist poets on book projects. Along with Larionov, Goncharova helped articulate a new style of Rayonism, which had to do with experimenting with the effect of rays of light on natural objects. She also was associated with Futurism and even starred in their film, Drama in the Futurists’ Cabaret No. 13. The Russian impressario, Sergei Diaghilev was attracted to Goncharova’s work and invited her to make stage designs for Le Coq d’Or(The Golden Cockerel), which was staged at the Paris Opera in 1914. The following year, she and Larionov left Russia and went to Europe, where they joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. They travelled with the group for several years and worked as stage set and costume designers. In 1919, she settled permanently in Paris with Larionov, and became an active member of the Parisian art scene. She became acquainted with Matisse, Picasso, Leger and the poet Jean Cocteau. She took on students and continued to work as a stage designer. Her most famous project was arguably her work for the ballet Les Noces (1923) by Stravinsky. Goncharova’s painting, particularly before the war, proved to be influential for a number of young female painters, including Rozanova, Popova, Ekster, and Udal’tsova.

Zinaida Serebriakova

Zinaida Serebriakova was born in 1884 on an estate near Kharkov. Her father, Evgeny Lancere, was a well-known sculptor, and her mother was a member of the Benois family. Aleksandr Benois, the painter, illustrator, and art critic, was Zinaida’s uncle. When Zinaida’s father died in 1886, she went to live with the Benois family and grew up in their midst. Her artistic training began early. In addition to working with private tutors, she studied in various art schools in both Russia and Europe. Early in her career, she was accepted into the ranks of the World of Art, a group of mainly male Russian artists and intellectuals dedicated both to developing native Russian art traditions and also increasing Russia’s connections with European art. Serebriakova’s work reflects this dual interest; she was fascinated by Russian rural culture, while she was also heavily influenced by European artists, such as Titian, Tintoretto, and Rubens. The first exhibition in which she participated was organized by the “Union of Russian Artists” in St. Petersburg in 1910. Her painting, Self-Portrait at the Dressing Table (1909), which was shown at the exhibition, was immediately purchased by the Tret’iakov Gallery. Serebriakova’s work belongs mainly to the genre of portraiture. In addition to painting her own self-portrait, Serebriakova often painted members of her own family, including her four children. Serebriakova’s early portraits are characterized by their vibrant colors, high realism, and optimistic mood. In addition to portraiture, Serebriakova also experimented with the genre of the nude; Bathhouse(study) (1912) is one example of her highly successful attempts in this area of painting traditionally dominated by men. Serebriakova’s paintings are also marked by a strong interest in the Russian peasant. Bleaching Linen (1917) depicts, for example, four young and healthy Russian peasant women working in the outdoors. Serebriakova was one of the first women nominated to become a member of the Academy of Arts in Russia, but the Russian Revolution in 1917 made her membership an impossibility. The Revolution and its aftermath brought many changes to Serebriakova’s life. Her husband, a railway engineer, died of typhus in 1918. A fire destroyed her home and she was forced to take her children and ailing mother to Petrograd, where they lived in poverty. Nonetheless Serebriakova continued to paint, but her work began to reflect a new seriousness and the harsh conditions of life in early Soviet society. A memorable and highly symbolic work from this period is The House of Cards (1919), which depicts her four small children as they concentrate on building a house of cards. In 1924, Serebriakova accepted a commission to work on a mural in Paris and left for France; she never returned to Russia, but evidently felt at a loss living far from her homeland. She continued to paint in her realistic style, and thus did not feel at home in the avant-garde world of Parisian painting. A major travelling exhibition of her work was permitted by the Soviet government in 1966.

Author: KEM 2003.