Mikhail Vrubel - Biography and Legacy
Russian Painter and Theater Designer
St Petersburg, Russia
Biography of Mikhail Vrubel
Mikhail Vrubel was born in 1856 in the city of Omsk in southwestern Siberia. One of four children, his mother came from old Russian nobility, and died when Vrubel was just three years old. His father, Aleksandr Mikhailovich Vrubel, was of Polish descent and a military man, and raised his children to be familiar with both Roman Catholicism and the Russian Orthodox church.
On completing school, Vrubel decided to follow his father's example and enter a military career. He served in the Imperial Russian Army and the Astrakhan Cossacks, experiencing conflict firsthand through his participation in the Caucasian and Crimean Wars. After the wars, Vrubel studied to become a military lawyer, graduating from the Faculty of Law at St. Petersburg University in 1880.
Throughout his military endeavors, Vrubel's father recognized and encouraged his son's artistic talents, even funding his education in painting through private tutors. Whilst studying at St Petersburg, Vrubel took evening classes at the city's Academy of Fine Arts, eventually becoming a full-time post-graduate student where he studied under Pavel Christyakov. He was also able to access the Academy's museum and archives, which contained specialist collections of Early Russian art, including medieval Byzantine works and Russian icons.
Early Training and Work
Before completing his studies, Vrubel's work came to the attention of the art critic and historian Professor Adrian Prakhov, who came to the school to recruit students to help restore the twelfth-century murals and mosaics in the Church of Saint Cyril in Kiev. Vrubel's contribution to the restoration proved crucial both to the project, and to his own career, since it provided him with an education in Byzantine color and methods which would infuse his own works.
Vrubel remained in Kiev for five years though he visited Venice in 1884 to study the Italo-Byzantine church mosaics as research. He was particularly taken with the mosaics in the Basilica of San Marco and the works of artists Bellini and Carpaccio.
Following the restoration of the Church of Saint Cyril, Vrubel struggled to find paid work. Returning to Russia, he settled in Odessa, and in 1886 entered a competition to design for the newly built Cathedral of Saint Vladimir. However, his unconventional ideas were vetoed. This rejection, and the financial hardship Vrubel faced during the late 1880s, prompted him to rethink his religious and philosophical worldview. He stepped away from organized religion and began to question his Christian faith, becoming an avid reader of the works of philosophers such as Immanuel Kant. Increasingly, Vrubel was drawn to the idea that he would achieve spiritual fulfillment only through the pursuit of his creative endeavors.
In 1890, Vrubel relocated to Moscow. Here he found other artists who were experimenting beyond the boundaries of painting into applied arts such as pottery and ceramics, stained glass, and costume and set design. New ideas and artistic trends from Europe could be seen in Moscow, and it was here that Vrubel became acquainted with the nascent Art Nouveau style. In direct contrast with the historic styles taught in the nineteenth century, Art Nouveau sought inspiration from the patterns and movements found in nature, often through the use of modern materials and decorative arts rather than painting. Encouraged by the idea that art is not separate from its surroundings, Vrubel excelled in experimenting, developing a keen interest in Oriental arts such as Persian carpets, and the development of texture in painting.
The decision to move away from painting and fine arts and move more towards the applied arts was certainly influenced by his marriage to the famous opera singer Nadezhda Ivanovna Zabela in 1896. Vrubel designed stage sets and costumes for his wife, who sang in productions of Rimsky-Korsakov's operas, including The Snow Maiden and the parts of Princess Volkhova in Sadko and the Swan Princess in The Tale of Tsar Saltan.
In 1898, the artists Alexandre Benois and Léon Bakst, together with the art critic Sergei Diaghilev, founded the art journal-cum-manifesto World of Art (Mir Iskusstva) which promoted the Russian version of Art Nouveau. The trio organized several exhibitions alongside the journal and it was through the exhibition tour, which travelled throughout Europe, that Vrubel's reputation grew internationally (not least through the endorsement of Pablo Picasso). Vrubel's work and that of his World of Art contemporaries, including Konstantin Somov and Eugene Lansere, offered a different take on western European features in the way it infused Art Nouveau with a specifically Russian aesthetic: namely bright colors, folkloric tales, and traditional patterns.
Through his wife, Vrubel became acquainted with Savva Mamontov, an industrialist and keen patron of the arts. Since the 1870s, Mamontov had owned the Abramtsevo Estate near Khotkovo, north of Moscow, and run it as an artistic colony (the "Abramtsevo Colony"). One of the key aims of the community were to explore Russian folk art and the quality of medieval production in order to produce beautiful pieces of furniture, ceramics, and textiles. The group of artists, writers and designers who gathered there to share and exchange ideas - including Vrubel, Isaak Levitan, Ilya Repin, Yelena Polenova and Apollinary and Viktor Vasnetsov - became known collectively as the Mamontov Circle. Vrubel became a major figure in the Circle, designing murals and stage sets: Mamontov even appointed him the head of the ceramic workshops. Alongside artists Konstantin Korovin and Valentin Serov, Vrubel became deeply involved with life in the colony: together they took part in amateur dramatic and musical productions. Vrubel wrote in 1891 that at Abramtsevo he managed to find "that intimate national note that [he] so wanted to capture on canvas and in ornament".
Within this move towards experimentation in different art forms, the signs of a particular style began to emerge: Symbolism. In Russia, Symbolism was first realized in literature at the end of the nineteenth century, such as in the work of the poet Aleksandr Blok and the novelist Andrei Bely. Vrubel was, according to the art historian Lydia Iovleva, "the first conscious, principled Symbolist among painters". The Symbolist principle of expressing psychological truth and the artist's inner mind through art provided a key outlet for Vrubel, who struggled with his mental health throughout his life. Whilst other artists were using the Art Nouveau style as a vehicle to paint in the realist manner, Vrubel gradually moved into Symbolism as a means to explore spiritual thoughts, sometimes even through abstract forms that were a long way removed from the social realm of everyday life. Soon other artists from the World of Art group also began to experiment with Symbolism including Victor Borisov-Musatov and Mikhail Nesterov.
After the turn of the twentieth century, Vrubel's mental health deteriorated and following a severe nervous breakdown, he was hospitalized. He continued to paint whilst at a clinic but was compelled to stop as he became increasingly blind in the last years of his life.
The Legacy of Mikhail Vrubel
Vrubel was one of the first artists in Russia to explore the Art Nouveau style and how the concepts of Symbolism could be explored in visual art. By looking back at the artistic methods of the past, he used such techniques to create a style that was concerned with the spiritual rather than the religious. These ideas, although dismissed by competition juries when pitching work at the time, were more readily appreciated by a new generation of Russian artists.
The need to look backwards in order to move forwards, and the suggestion that art should not be limited to canvas alone, were ideas that continued to resonate well into the twentieth-century in Russia and further afield. As the art historian Roberta Reeder has commented, "it was he more than any other Russian artist of this period who was to have a decisive influence on the direction art would take in the next generation of Russian artists".
Vrubel's stage-work was revered by artists of the World of Art group in St Petersburg, including the founder of the Ballets Russes, Sergei Diaghilev. Parallels of influence can be seen in major artists of the decade following Vrubel's death: Pavel Filonov, Wassily Kandinsky, and Kazimir Malevich for example. Professor Adrian Prakhov's son, the painter Nikolai Prakhov, wrote of the beginnings of Rayonism in Vrubel's paintings, and likened them to the folk-based art of Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. The sculptor Naum Gabo stated meanwhile that Vrubel "freed the arts of paintings and sculpture from the academic and realist schemata. His genius is responsible for moulding the visual consciousness of our generation which came after him".