Room 39. Traditions and Innovations in Russian Culture. Late 19th — Early 20th Century

At the turn of the century the socio-economic situation in the country prompted society to look back and remember its sources. This return to the past and traditional values could be viewed as a step to solving many timely problems. The creation of national style in art was the practical embodiment of a broad, multifaceted movement aimed at reviving historical heritage. This problem was the most acute and timely in Russia, as in no other country, for national style here was perceived not so much as an artistic trend, but as the way of thinking.

The national-romantic style at the beginning of the 20th century existed in close connection with the problems of historical science. Archaeological and historical research served as the basis for the creation of art works which combined authenticity and artistic imagery. The case 12 shows monuments of church art which lived through a real renaissance. In a short period of time more than five thousand churches were opened in Russia. Scholars, architects and artists saw in their work for the church the way for reviving the spiritual traditions of Ancient Rus, which were the foundation of the entire Russian civilization. The best firms in Russia made religious objects and church decorations, artistically combining Byzantine splendour with the traditional motives of ancient Russian and early Christian art.

The firm owned by P. Ovchinnikov, a former serf of the Princes Volkonsky, founded in 1853, became world-famous for the development of national traditions in jewellery. It revived the old Byzantine technique of enamel work, adding purely Russian features to it. From 1865 Ovchinnikov’s firm was the regular supplier of the imperial court, and later a purveyor of many royal and princely courts of Europe.

The reforms of the 1860s created conditions for a more active participation of entrepreneurs in public life. For example, P. Ovchinnikov became a deputy to the Moscow City Duma, a member of the Merchant Department and the Moscow Exchange Committee, he was awarded Russian orders and medals, the French Legion d’Honneur, and the Order of the Iron Crown.

cases 1–3
On display in cases 1–3 are objects of precious metals in the form of ancient Russian vessels and caskets. These items used to be kept in regimental museums in military units organized in connection with the growing interest in the history of the Motherland. The main aim of these regimental museums was to preserve the age-old traditions of the defence of “Faith, Tsar and the Motherland” in the army. The foot for the 100th anniversary of the 1812 war was made of officers’ shoulder-straps of the oldest grenadier Nesvizhsky Regiment, whose patron was M. Barclay de Tolli. The wooden casket with silver and enamel decorations made by Ovchinnikov’s firm in 1910 was presented to the grenadier Pernovsky regiment by its veterans. The silver vessel was made in 1911 in honour of the infantry Caspian regiment which had been formed in 1863 and received its baptism of fire in the Russo-Japanese war.

The glass of 1898 and cup of 1906 refer to the time of Emperor Nicholas II’s visit to the oldest Izmailovsky and Preobrazhensky regiments which he patronized. The inscriptions on both vessels show that the emperor himself drank from them to the happiness and health of the regiments. The glass was made by the outstanding jeweller M. Perkhin working for the famous Faberge firm.

The silver cross belonged to Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich, lieutenant-general and the patron of the 5th grenadier Kiev regiment, which took part in the Russo-Turkish war, the governor general of Moscow and amateur archaeologist. In 1891–1905 he was the chairman of the board of the History Museum to which he donated a great number of historical relics.

The icon “The Blessed Virgin Sign” shows the striving for the renovation of the artistic language. It was made by P. Olovyanishnikov’s firm, and the frame for it was made by S. Vashkov, the chief artist of the firm, who liked to use Byzantine and early Christian motives. The artist received orders for religious objects from all over Russia — from St. Petersburg to far-off monasteries.

There is a silver chalice ordered by the descendants of the outstanding military commander and comrade-in-arms of Peter the Great, Count Sheremetev for the regiment bearing his name. The silver vase with the sculptural images of ancient Russian knights was a present to the commander of the Trubchevsky infantry regiment A. Baltiisky from his officers. The fate of A. Baltiisky was typical of many officers of the Russian army. A graduate of the Academy of the General Staff and the Naval Academy, he served in the Red army during the Civil war, then he taught at Soviet military academies during the 1920–1930 period. In 1938 he was arrested and shot.

One of the photographs on display shows a meeting of the congress of the curators of regiment museums which was held in 1913. At the beginning of the 20th century the need matured for opening a single museum of military history which would be “a treasure-store of monuments and memories of the deeds and feats of valour of the Russian armed forces and Russian warriors during the more than 1,000 years of Russia’s military history”. However, such a museum came into being only after the October revolution. In 1926 it became “an inalienable part of the History Museum”. Among its exhibits was the portrait of Emperor Alexander III by the artist N. Dmitriyev-Orenburgsky, on which the emperor was shown inside a premise decorated in Russian style.

case 4
Case 4 contains books which demonstrate the standard and culture of the publishing business at the end of the 19th — beginning of the 20th century. The book “History and Monuments of Byzantine Enamel” by N. Kondakov was rightly called “a miracle of printing and beauty worthy of the admiration of kings”. The history of the creation of the book merits attention. At the request of the collector and patron of art A. Zvenigorodsky, the historian N. Kondakov carefully studied the enamel works in his collection, for which he was awarded the Gold medal of the Russian Archaeological Society. The collector wished to publish the results of his work in a book worthy of admiration. In France, on the initiative of Napoleon III and specially for the World Fair in Paris, a luxurious edition of “Imitation de Jesus-Christ” was printed in 1885. The number of copies was limited (only 130) and the publication was financed by the state. Most copies were sent to the crowned rulers of many countries, except Russia, with which France was at loggerheads at the time.

Inspired by patriotic sentiments, A. Zvenigorodsky decided to prove that a private person in Russia was able to create a masterpiece no worse than that of the French emperor. Inasmuch as the publication required a big sum of money, he sold the greater part of his collection of antiquities. Not a single copy of Kondakov’s book (600 in all, 200 in Russian, 200 in German and 200 in French) was sold. The publisher presented all the copies of this book to libraries, museums, scholars, kings, queens and tsars. The first copy was presented to Emperor Alexander III.

cases 5, 6
Cases 5 and 6 display compositions by sculptors who worked with clay. M. Vrubel created images in pottery inspired by music by Rimsky-Korsakov, who widely used the old fairy-tale motives. Vrubel wrote to the composer: “I decided to devote my work exclusively to Russian folk tales.” M. Vrubel and P. Vaulin, a technologist specializing in pottery, worked out a new method of baking and glazing, as a result of which their majolica items looked very original.

case 7
A dish in Ancient Russian style was made at the pottery studio of the Stroganov Art School. Its decoration is like the one on the inkstand of the 17th century from the collection of the History Museum (case 7). Objects from the History Museum collection were often copied by students of the Stroganov Art School. One of its tasks was, according to its director V. Butovsky, “to direct the artistic tastes and trends of its students to quests in the sphere of national art”.

The decorative plates on display in this case were painted by E. Polenova, a landscape artist and illustrator of Russian folk tales. In the Abramtsevo Estate, where many artists and sculptors lived and worked, special “pottery evenings” were organized by E. Polenova, which served as a kind of distraction from the usual painting of portraits, still-lives and landscapes. At first, artists painted dishes and plates, and then began to master a new form of art — decorative majolica (case 7).

The drawing decorating the menu of the festive dinner in honour of the Order of St. George was made by the famous artist V. Vasnetsov, who was famous for his monumental works in St. Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev. The menu was a vivid example of a change in the attitude of the representatives of the noble easel painting to applied art. During that period artists worked out decorations for stoves and fireplaces, stained glass panels, tapestries, and drew and decorated theatre programs and menus.

In this room one can see objects of furniture made on A. Vasnetsov’s sketches. The artist oft en designed furniture for the Moscow Handicraft s Museum, which displayed works by artists, popularized applied art and craft s, and worked out samples for new items.

A. Vasnetsov’s canvas “Trade on Red Square” is quite interesting. According to the artist, his turning to historical subjects in painting was prompted by love for folk art, for science, for the collection of various materials and study of facts. One of the main themes of the creative work of the artist was old Moscow which, in his view, embodied folk art.

cases 8, 9
The materials of cases 8 and 9 tell about the artistic and scientific life of Russia. There is a letter written by N. Roerich to I. Zabelin, asking for a scientific consultation. (It was one of the many requests addressed to the History Museum for the purpose). The prestige of the museum, his curator and employees was very high, and the wonderful collection of historical relics and monuments was justly regarded a firm scientific base for the intelligentsia. Thinking of the role of scientific knowledge in artistic creative work, N. Roerich wrote: “The artist should not invent anything, hoping for the ignorance or unpreparedness of the spectator. On the contrary, he should study ancient life as thoroughly as possible, and become permeated with it”.

The magazine “Rampa i zhizn” (“Stage and Life”) was devoted to the jubilee anniversary of the private opera company by S. Mamontov. The entrepreneur and patron of art, and the owner of the old Abramtsevo estate, which used to belong to the Aksakov family, succeeded in creating a favourable creative atmosphere there, having turned the estate into a centre of Russian national culture. Many persons in the artistic world of Russia were connected with the private opera company of S. Mamontov, which opened in Moscow in 1885, such as N. Rimsky-Korsakov, S. Rakhmaninov, the Vasnetsov brothers, M. Vrubel, and V. Serov. The great singer F. Chaliapin began his career there.

Case 9 contains materials devoted to the history of the Moscow Archaeological Society, which was founded on the initiative of Count S. Uvarov in 1864. Among the tasks of the society were studying Russian antiquities and instilling interest in and sympathy for ancient Russian culture in the broad masses of the population. On the water-colour displayed is the home of the Duma clerk Averky Kirillov on Bersenevskaya Embankment, which housed the Moscow Archaeological Society. The silver briefcase is the society’s present to its chair person — Countess P. Uvarova, an archaeologist and honorary member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, who was the author of over 170 works on archaeology.

In a letter addressed to V. Gorodtsov, a research associate of the History Museum and archaeologist, Princess M. Tenisheva informed him about preparations for archaeological work in the Smolensk gubernia. Her estates Talashkino and Flenovo 142 39 Stove glazed tiles in M. Kuznetsov’s dining room 1890s. In the region were a kind of an intellectual and creative centre where writers, composers, scientists and scholars, journalists and artists worked.

case 10
On the wall and in case 10 there are fragments of the decoration of the dining room in the estate of the big industrial tycoon M. Kuznetsov. Its author was the outstanding architect F. Shekhtel. He assessed this work of his quite highly: in 1901, when submitting the list of his works for getting the honorary title of “Academician of Architecture”, he put “the dining room in Russian style in the house of Matvei Kuznetsov in Moscow” under Number 1.

case 11
A chair and details of the interior decorations of the house which belonged to the artist V. Baksheyev in Moscow were made by the artist S. Malyutin (case 11). An original artist of the Russian Modern, he worked for Mamontov’s private opera company, and later in Tenisheva’s estate. He designed quite a few buildings in Talashkino and Flenovo, as well as furniture and household utensils for the shops and studios organized by Tenisheva. The panel “Gorodok” was part of the interior decoration of her house in Talashkino.

Both Talashkino and Abramtsevo were not only the centres of national artistic ideas and their realization, but they also carried on vast social and educational activity. They tried to “instil enlightenment in the growing generation”, revive national handicraft s, give the local peasants an opportunity to keep their children at home in their families, educate and train them on the spot, instead of sending them to town in search of work.

On display in case 11 is a costume of a well-to-do woman on individual order, made of fine broadcloth with beaver down and decorated with embroidery on motives of Russian national ornament.

The screen in the room shows buildings erected in various cities of Russia and designed by well-known architects: A, Shchusev, F. Shekhtel, V. Pokrovsky, S. Krichinsky, and others. On the basis of the rich traditions of Ancient Russian architecture they were able to create their own original works. On another screen one can see works of photographic art which began to develop in Russia in the 1890s. There were two trends: realistic and aesthetic close to expressionism. Works by M. Dmitriyev, A. Karelin, A. Mazurin, V. Shalakhov, N. Yumatov, and others give a no less expressive image of Russia of the late 19th — early 20th century than those by painters or graphic artists.

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