Peredvizhniki - History and Concepts
Beginnings of Peredvizhniki
Artel of Artists
Peredvizhniki developed out of The Artel of Artists, a cooperative commune established in 1863 following what was called the "revolt of fourteen." This came about when fourteen young artists, all studying at the St. Petersburg Academy of Art, rebelled against the choice of topic for the annual Gold Medal competition, "The Entrance of Odin into Valhalla". The group felt that the topic summed up the Academy's stifling focus on the Neoclassical tradition, and wanted to paint the reality of contemporary Russian life, learning from the examples of Realism and Naturalism in Europe.
The leader of the rebellion was Ivan Nikolaevich Kramskoi, a student at the Academy since 1857, who had become increasingly dissatisfied with the conservatism of Russian art and society. Influenced by the literary critics Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky and Nikolay Chernyshevsky, Kramskoi became an increasingly vocal advocate for democratic reforms, arguing for the social and political responsibility of the artist, and for the development of a specifically Russian art. Finding the Academy hostile to both his political and his artistic views, he became the figurehead for a growing number of restless young students.
The Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions
Having established the Artel of Artists in 1863, in 1870 the group led by Kramskoi began plans to hold a series of "Itinerant Art Exhibitions", to be held in provincial locations and funded without state assistance, displaying the achievements of Russian art to the common man and woman. These were the founding activities of Peredvizhniki, a group also including Vasily Grigoryevich Perov, Nikolai Ge, and Grigory Myasoyedov. Perov, the eldest of them, was already well-known for his genre paintings, such as Arrival of a New Governess in a Merchant House (1866), and his tutelage of younger artists such as Nikolai Kasatkin, Konstantin Korovin, Isaac Levitan, Abram Arkhipov, and Mikhail Nesterov, would have a significant impact on the group's artistic development.
The first of Peredvizhniki's "Itinerant Art Exhibitions" was held in 1871, and from then on the group organized a series of shows across Russia, accompanied by artists' lectures, and talks on social and political reform. These exhibitions also created a new marketplace, a context in which artists could sell their work independently of Academic patronage, to an increasingly prosperous middle class. Between 1871 and 1923, no fewer than 47 exhibitions were organized by Peredvizhniki, in cities such as Kiev, Odessa, Kazan, Orel, and Riga, as well as Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Vissarion Grigoryevich Belinsky and Nikolai Chernyshevsky
Vissarion Belinsky was a noted literary critic, whose writing on Russian prose became a vehicle for his progressive political views. He was an ardent critic of serfdom, a system he described as "trampling upon anything that is remotely human", and of the autocracy of Tsarist government. Belinsky's influence on Russian society was so profound that the novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years in a Siberian prison camp for reading and planning to distribute one of Belinsky's letters attacking the feudal system. Like the great prose stylists whose work he promoted - Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev - Belinsky believed in a type of writing that would express a social conscience, and transcribe the psychological reality of lived experience.
Nikolay Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky was a writer and literary critic whose famous novel What Is to be Done? (1862) transformed public consciousness around the issue of serfdom (its title was later borrowed by Lenin for his revolutionary pamphlet of 1902). Partly as a result, Chernyshevsky - who was influenced by Belinsky - became a leading voice of revolutionary democratic movements in Russia, and the head of the Narodniks, a populist movement within the middle classes who felt that only the peasantry could overthrow the monarchy and establish a socialist regime. In 1874, the Narodniks began - in their words - "going to the peasants" to persuade them to revolt; the idea was very similar to that expressed by the Peredvizhniki exhibitions, which took art to the villages as a pretext for social reform.
Sovremennik ("The Contemporary") was a magazine launched by the poet Alexander Pushkin, though its first issue was published following his unexpected death in a duel in 1836. The magazine became one of Russia's leading literary journals, printing work by the most famous writers of the golden age of Russian prose, including Ivan Turgenev, Dmitry Grigorovich, Alexander Druzhinin, and Leo Tolstoy.
Vissarion Belinsky became involved with the magazine in the late 1840s, at which point it was managed by the poet Nikolay Nekrasov and the critic Ivan Panaev. Often threatened with official censorship, but avidly consumed by the intelligentsia, Sovremmenik continued to appear until 1866. Between 1853 and 1862 Chernyshevsky edited the magazine printing his own work in it, such as his academic thesis The Aesthetic Relations of Art to Reality (1855), which called for an art that would "reproduce nature and life." The young members of the Artel of Artists were deeply influenced by the radical ideas espoused in Sovremmenik, seen as one of the motivating factors behind their own revolt in 1863.
Pavel Mikhaylovich Tretyakov and Vladimir Vasilievich Stasov
Important early supporters of the Peredvizhniki artists included the art critic Vladimir Stasov - who was particularly influential in justifying their naturalistic treatment of social reality - and the collector Pavel Tretyakov. Stasov was the most respected critic of his era, a venerated figure who felt that Russian art should be "authentic, genuine, and not trivial." He believed that "after long years of scarcity, pretense, and imitation," such an art had finally been cultivated by Peredvizhniki, particularly as they had succeeded in freeing their work from European influence.
Tretyakov was a wealthy businessman and banker who began collecting art in 1854, with the aim of creating a National Gallery in Russia. He was an avid collector and supporter of the Peredvizhniki, buying works at their exhibitions and direct from the artists' studios, sometimes purchasing complete series of paintings at once. As a result, he held the largest collection of works by Perov, Repin, Kramskoi, Levitan, Serov, and various other Peredvizhniki artists. He also commissioned original work by the artists, including portraits of noted Russians, and often provided financial assistance to group members who were struggling to pay their way. In 1893, he established the Moscow City Gallery of Pavel and Sergei Tretyakov, now known as the Tretyakov Gallery, where many Peridvizhniki works can still be viewed.
Peredvizhniki: Concepts, Styles, and Trends
Though perhaps best-known for their landscape paintings, the Peredvizhniki artists also worked across several other genres, including portraiture, genre painting, and historical and religious art, as evidenced by the wide-ranging oeuvre of Ilya Repin, the most famous figure attached to the group. Rebelling against the Neoclassical tradition of the Academy, Perdvizhniki sought to redefine the relative importance assigned to different types of painting by the Academic art-world, feeling that a historical painting, for example, was no more or less significant than a genre painting; they often sought to create work which combined the conventions of particular genres. Nonetheless, it is still possible to assess their achievements by reference to various inherited 'types' of painting: from landscapes and portraits to genre paintings and historical and religious works.
The extent of Peredvizhniki's interest in landscape painting varied. Some artists, such as the renowned Ivan Shishkin, focused primarily on the genre, producing works - such as Oak Grove (1887) - displaying a rapt attentiveness to the natural environment. Indeed, Shishkin became so identified with his images of forests that he was dubbed 'the singer of the forest' or 'Tsar of the forest.' Yet some critics argued that, for all their realism, his landscapes were too understated in their emotional content.
By contrast, the artist Alexei Kondratyevich Savrasov, with works such as The Rooks Have Come Back (1871), created so-called "lyrical landscapes" or "mood landscapes", a creative path followed by younger artists such as Fyodor Alexandrovich Vasilyev, Nikolay Nikanorovich Dubovskoy, and Isaac Ilyich Levitan. Levitan, whose Secluded Monastery (1890) is another good example of this genre, was devoted to painting on location, and his understanding of light and color enabled him to capture the psychological and emotional impact of certain natural scenes with extraordinary accuracy. His work was seen as a radical departure from the conventions of the landscape genre, transcending naturalistic depiction to present landscapes as vessels or mirrors for human thought and emotion.
A more luminous treatment of landscape, emphasizing color and light in more exaggerated ways, is found in the work of Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi, while a further version of the Peredvizhniki landscape style is provided by the paintings of Ilya Yefimovich Repin. The most famous artist of the group, Repin's landscapes often focused on the human figure, as in Ploughman (1887), for example, which presents the famous writer Leo Tolstoy plowing a field.
The most well-known portraitist amongst the Peredvizhniki group was Kramskoi, who was celebrated not only for his portraits of noted Russians such as Tolstoy and Tretyakov, but also for his paintings of the Russian peasantry, and other real-life subjects. Works of Kramskoi's such as Portrait of An Unknown Woman (1883) capture the complexity of the individual subject while simultaneously blending and subverting the tropes of portraiture and genre painting. Nikolai Ge, Vasily Perov, Nikolai Yaroshenko, Valentin Serov, and Nicolai Kuznetsov were also known for their portraits. Despite their opposition to the stereotypical constraints of the genre, Peredvizhniki's portrait paintings often depict figures seen to exemplify some particular aspect of Russian identity, as in Serov's Portrait of the Composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1898) and Kuznetsov's Portrait of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1893), both of which focus on famous composers and Russian cultural icons.
The St. Petersburg Academy considered historical painting a higher form of art than genre painting, but the Peredvizhniki painters felt that genre painting - in short, the painting of scenes from everyday life - could be used to represent important moments in Russian history, and to capture the realities of Russian life. Perov's early genre work played an important role in establishing the group's emphasis on genre painting, but it was Ilya Repin's masterful Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870-73) that set the standard for painting in this style, constituting both a striking landscape and a psychologically harrowing portrait of Russian working life.
A number of other Peredvizhniki painters also excelled in genre work. Vladimir Makovsky's work often focused on urban life, bringing an emotional and occasionally satirical scrutiny to city-scenes, as in his On the Boulevard (1887), which depicts an alienated couple on a park bench. Mykola Pymonenko, a Ukrainian artist of a younger generation, was a similarly talented genre painter, though he focused on rural rather than city life, as in A Ford (1901). From the 1880s onwards, the genre painting of Peredvizhniki took a markedly political cast, with works such as Repin's Unexpected Visitor (1886) - which shows a hollow-eyed young man returning to his family after political exile - and Pymonenko's Victim of Fanaticism (1899).
Historical and Religious Painting
Despite opposing the bias in favor of history painting within the Academy, the Peredvizhniki artists themselves created historical scenes, though mainly based on episodes drawn from Russian national history (rather than classical antiquity). The most famous of these was perhaps Repin's Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks to Sultan Mehmed IV of the Ottoman Empire (1880-91), depicting the legendarily obscene response of the Ukrainian Cossacks to the Ottoman Sultan's demand for surrender following a 17th-century battle; it was described by the artist as "a study in laughter." Vasily Surikov became well-known for his trilogy of historical paintings The Morning of the Streltsy Execution (1881) - focused on Peter the Great's brutal suppression of a military revolt - Menshikov in Berezovo (1888) - showing a 17th-century military leader in exile - and Boyarynya Morozova (1887), which depicts the folk hero Feodosia Morozova at the moment of her arrest for resistance to religious reforms in 1671. All of these paintings represented pivotal and painful moments in the birth of the modern Russian state.
The works of Nikolai Ge and Kramskoi, by contrast, frequently focused on religious themes. Kramskoi's Christ in the Desert (1872) was exhibited at the second Peredvizhniki exhibition, with the contemporary critic Ivan Goncharov praising the depiction of Christ's "pauper appearance, under the rags, in humble simplicity, inseparable [from] true majesty and force." Older than most of Peredvizhniki, Ge became associated with the group late in his career, and continued to focus on religious subjects to an unusual degree, as in What Is Truth? (1890), a late work showing Christ being questioned by Pontius Pilate. In Orthodox Russia, religious paintings were seen as depicting historical fact, and for the Peredvizhniki artists, the figure of Christ - presented as poor, humble, and deeply human - became a symbol for the suffering of the common Russian.
Later Developments - After Peredvizhniki
Following a pattern repeated throughout the history of modern art, the initially revolutionary methods of Peredvizhniki had themselves been institutionalized by the 1890s, with many of the movement's key artists accepting teaching positions at the Imperial Academy. Indeed, by the turn of the century, oeuvres such as Repin's were perceived as monuments to a new creative orthodoxy, and younger artists increasingly viewed Peredvizhniki style with skepticism or frustration. In 1898, the art patron Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev - later famous for founding the Ballets Russes- established the group Mir Iskusstva (World of Art), which promoted new artists and movements in effective defiance of the Peredvizhniki hegemony.
The response to these new developments within the group itself was resistance in some instances, friendship and support in others, as in the notable case of the ageing Stasov. Younger artists associated with Peredvizhniki, such as Konstantin Korovin, Isaac Levitan, and Valentin Serov, also became allies of Diaghilev. Partly as a result, while early-20th-century artists were often outwardly hostile to the legacy of the group, their work continued to display the impact of Peredvizhniki techniques and concepts. The painters Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, for example, who were responsible for defining Russian Primitivism and Rayonism - two of the most important styles within Russian avant-garde art of the 1910s - both advocated for the specific genius of Russian art, and for the depiction of working and rural life. Kazimir Malevich, who founded the Suprematist movement in 1913, went on to create works depicting peasants on Soviet collective farms, such as Mower (1930), which showing thematic influence of his teacher Pymonenko; we can also sense Peredvizhniki themes and tropes in Sergev Konenkov's sculptures, and in the Post-Impressionist landscapes of Konstantin Ivanovich Gorbatov. Even Russian Futurism, in its clamor for a new, egalitarian Russian society, arguably expressed the indirect influence of the Peredvizhniki ethos.
The group's most superficial cultural legacy, however, was rather bleaker, standing for the new cultural autocracy which gripped post-revolutionary Russia. In 1922, Peredvizhniki was replaced by the Association of Artists of Revolutionary Russia (AARR), led by Pavel Radimov - the last leader of Peredvizhniki - and incorporating other realist painters from the older group. The AARR rejected new developments in avant-garde art, and became closely associated with the advent of Socialist Realism during the 1930s. The emphasis on realistic representation and everyday subject-matter which had been so subversive in the 1860s thus became the basis for a constrictive orthodoxy, with Ilya Repin's work presented as the exemplar of Soviet art for decades.
All art movements, however, accommodate individuals of skill and significance, and many of those who became attached to Socialist Realism, such as Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, were initially inspired or incited by Peredvizhniki. Isaac Levitan's landscapes, whose non-human subject-matter in a sense transcended the cultural battles of the 1930s, were lauded by very different movements and figures, from Diaghilev to the Socialist Realist painter Czeslaw Znamierowski. Indeed, just as Levitan's work stood aloof from the Realist/Avant-garde debate, Znamierowski's Impressionist-influenced landscapes avoided the more explicitly propagandist motifs of Socialist Realism while remaining culturally acceptable in mid-century USSR. Later in the 20th century, artists of the so-called Nonconfirmist School, such as Oleg Vassiliev, arguably carried the progressive spirit of Perdvizhniki forwards.
Works by the Peredvizhniki artists themselves have become ingrained in Russian cultural consciousness, as evidenced by the send-up of Repin's Barge Haulers in various political cartoons, and the naming of minor planets after Shishkin and Tretyakov by Soviet astronomers. As for the group's reception in the west, the influential American critic Clement Greenberg, in his 1939 article "Avant-Garde and Kitsch" cited Repin's Reply of the Cossacks (1880-91) as a particularly ignoble example of Kitsch. Perhaps as a result, the group's work was ignored to some extent for the following decades, though that situation began to change around the start of the 21st century.