PRINT Summer 1977

The Icon and Russian Modernism

“REBIRTH OF RUSSIAN PAINTING” “rebirth of life,” “Russian Renaissance,” “a new era in creation,” “the beginning of a new culture”: such were the aspirations of the Russian artistic vanguard in the early 20th century.1 The Russian renaissance was, of course, encouraged by contact with artistic innovations in Western Europe. But during the years from about 1908 to 1915, native Russian sources were in constant ascendance over Western influence. Two completely different painting exhibitions of 1913 may be taken as paradigms for the resolution of these two opposing sources, Western and native: one was Mikhail Larionov’s “Target” exhibition, at which he and Nataliia Goncharova exhibited their most radically abstract, rayist paintings; the other was an exhibition of ancient Russian icons celebrating 300 years of Romanov dynastic rule in Russia. Larionov’s “Target” exemplified a tendency toward extreme individualism in artistic style, while the icon exhibition was a paragon of collective, anonymous art, and an art which, despite variations conditioned by place and time, embodied a tradition of sacred imagery rooted in Eastern, Byzantine painting, and virtually unchanged over centuries. In the increasingly nationalistic spirit of the years preceding World War I, Larionov’s “Target” group came to reject the Western influences that had given rise to the rayist style. And in rejecting individualism, they turned to the East, to their own national roots and to the Eastern artistic tradition. This surprising convergence of aims and intentions was, however, only part of a larger appreciation of native Russian art that began much earlier.

It is generally agreed that the rediscovery of native arts and crafts, including the art of icon painting, brought about a renaissance of Russian art between about 1875 and the First World War. Certainly the revival of the crafts, together with the Slavophile movement in the second half of the 19th century, was a crucial factor in the development of painters in the circle around Savva Mamontov (1841–1918), a wealthy Moscow industrialist and patron of the arts. This national heritage, plus the example of the English Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau, gave rise to a flourishing production of arts and crafts which began in the workshops at the country estates of both Mamontov and Princess Mariia Tenisheva (1867–1928), which although not at these estates after the Revolution, lasted well into the 1930s. The decorative work at Mamontov’s estate, Abramtsevo, centered on the building and furnishing of the estate’s church. In painting the icons for the church, Vasilii Polenov, Ilya Repin and Apollinarii Vasnetov might be said to have pioneered in the reevaluation of Russia’s most ancient artistic tradition.

The icon was for centuries the focus of Russian Orthodox devotion, and the central role of the holy images in the Russian renaissance was confirmed by the coincidence of Slavophile and archeological aspirations from about 1856 on. At the close of the century Russian icons were being collected, catalogued and exhibited. Collectors like Pavel Tretyakov (whose collection and name were given to Moscow’s chief museum of Russian painting), Ilya Ostroukhov, Stefan Riabushinsky and Nikolai Likhachev, besides appreciating the icon as a historical document, established icons as a serious category in the fine arts.

The famed ballet impressario Serge Diaghilev included a section of icon paintings (from the Likhachev Collection) in the sampling of Russian painting which he organized for the 1906 Paris Salon d’Automne. The Diaghilev icons, however, were unimpressive, as centuries of dirt, darkened varnish and repainting obscured the icons’ vibrant colors. The cleaning of the holy images did not begin in earnest until about 1910, leading up to the 1913 Romanov exhibition.

By 1912 much writing had been published on icon and church fresco painting in Russia. Both Likhachev and Ostroukhov wrote on icons, and it is apparent from Ostroukhov’s manuscript that collectors appreciated the fact that, as religious art, “the style of the icon represents the transfigured state of beings and things.”2 Ostroukhov’s manuscript—undated but, from internal evidence, written around 1913—demonstrates the attitude of the collector at the time of the Romanov exhibition:

The icon takes us into an absolutely special world, one which has nothing in common with the world of painting—into the world beyond, a world created by faith and filled with representations of the spirit, not of the flesh.

This world is unreal and therefore it is implausible to approach the icon with demands that it embody real problems of earthly phenomena. . . .

And right now our own—specifically our own—ancient Russian icon, so joyously close and comprehensible to Russian people of old, is revealed to an astonished world, as an art of the highest achievements of the human spirit, the equal to which must be sought only in the art of ancient Egypt.3

Ostroukhov shared his love of both Russian icons and Egyptian art with Henri Matisse. In fact, he was Matisse’s guide through collections of Russian icons, as well as various Moscow cathedrals and monasteries, when he visited Russia in the autumn of 1911. Ostroukhov described Matisse’s reaction:

You should have seen his delight at the icons. Literally the whole evening he wouldn’t leave them alone, relishing and delighting in each one. And with what finesse! . . . At length he declared that for the icons alone it would have been worth his while coming from even further away than Paris, that the icons were now nobler for him than Fra Beato [Angelico] . . . Today Shchukin ’phoned me to say that Matisse literally couldn’t sleep the whole night because of the acuity of his impression.4

Matisse’s astonishment at the beauty of Russia’s newly cleaned icons was reported in the Russian daily press, which printed a running chronicle of his activities while in Moscow. The year 1911 marked the height of Matisse’s influence on the Russian vanguard, so his ecstatic reaction to Russia’s national heritage was not taken lightly. This undoubtedly had a profound effect on Russian artists’ sense of national pride and distinctiveness.

There can be little doubt about what fascinated Matisse in the Russian icon. As a painter, he delighted in its formal characteristics: the flat, rich color; the dematerialized subjects; the inverse perspective, which effectively prevents the viewer from entering the holy image, or from imagining its space as a continuation of his own (this is especially evident in the famous Royal Doors).

But the icon as a symbol of an ideal national past and an inspiration to a transformed future life was crucial to the renewed interest in Russia’s holy images. This factor, more than any other, explains the reevaluation of this heritage in the first two decades of the 20th century, at precisely the time of greatest formal and technical innovation in the painting of the Russian vanguard. As Dmitrii Sarabianov quite rightly points out, of all the distinctive features of Russian painting, “surely the most important element is the very ethos of its art, one . . . that is always inwardly connected to the destiny of the nation, to its national characteristics, and to the idiosyncracies of the national genius.”5

Recent studies of early 20th-century Russian art and literature have shown that this sense of national destiny was never felt more keenly or more memorably expressed than in the two decades before the October Revolution.6 Such a sense of destiny links up with a long-standing Russian tradition of apocalyptical thought upheld by the icon image since Russia’s Christianization in the late 10th century. The icon as symbolic bearer of the message of Christianity, in every Russian Orthodox household, gave a sense of ultimate purpose not only to the life of the individual believer, but to his nation as well. The concept of Moscow as the Third Rome crystallized this sense of national destiny and centered it in the very heart of modern Russia in the beginning of the 16th century.

While the rest of Europe developed the theory of the divine right of kings, political thought in Russia tended to focus on the Tsar as “the living icon of God, just as the whole Orthodox Empire is the icon of the heavenly world.” Even today, pictures of Russia’s political leaders serve a function similar to that of the icon.7 Isaak Brodsky’s Lenin in the Smolnyi Institute, 1935, though it eschews all the formal characteristics of icon painting, is clearly the image of Russian Communism’s patron saint.

The 17th century, as Sarabianov writes, was a period of transition in which icon techniques were applied to the painting of individual portraits such as those of Prince Mikhail V. Skopin-Shuisky, and Peter I’s fool, Yakov Turgenev. Thanks to the impact of Peter I's Westernization campaign, begun in the 18th century, Russia was not in a position to rediscover its own heritage until the Slavophile movement in the mid-19th century.

In the circle of Savva Mamontov, Mikhail Vrubel found a home in the 1890s. Even earlier, however, Vrubel had worked under a friend of Mamontov’s, Adrian Prakhov, who undertook in the mid-1880s the restoration and decoration of the 12th-century Kievan church of St. Kirill. For this project Vrubel studied both Byzantine mosaics and Russian icons. Various scholars have linked Vrubel’s icons for St. Kirill’s, especially his Madonna and Child, 1884–85, and his fresco of the Prophet Moses, 1884, with the Demon image that began to haunt Vrubel’s imagination in 1885.8 There are indeed clear visual links among these pictures. In Vrubel’s several paintings of the Demon, his monumental Bogatyr, 1898, and his Pan, 1899, a general current of myth-making prevails. This is evident in, and perhaps central to, the art and literature of other associates of the World of Art movement. Thus Vrubel’s art is linked by this myth-making tendency with such paintings as Viktor Vasnetsov’s Battle of the Scythians and the Slavs, 1881: “Vasnetsov’s work, like that of Vrubel, was seen by many of the World of Art members as the incarnation of an archaic, barbaric force, a world of ancient legend and elemental unity.”9 This sense of a unity inherent in earlier, more primitive cultures lay at the very heart of the myth-making trend; in the writings of the artist Leon Bakst, and the Symbolist poets Viacheslav Ivanov, Maksimilian Voloshin and Andrei Belyi, a return to primitive conditions was seen as the only means of rescuing man from his fractured civilization and from an invidious chaos of excessive individualism in which he found himself at the turn of the century. The deep interest of the World of Art group in ancient myth and popular legend was paralleled in the dance by the Ballets Russes, and in drama by Nikolai Evreinov’s productions at St. Petersburg’s Antique Theater (1907–08, 1911–12). In the sphere of the visual arts one should note Valentin Serov’s Rape of Europa, 1910, as well as Ivan Bilibin’s illustrations to Russian fairy tales, published from 1901 onwards.10

The return to earlier national cultures was not a condition peculiar to Russian art. One could cite Picasso’s work of 1907 which looked to ancient Iberian sculpture; or the artists of Die Brücke, who looked to medieval German woodcuts; or Vassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, whose Blaue Reiter Almanac and exhibition of 1912 contained examples of Russian folk prints (lubki) and Bavarian painting on glass (a sort of German peasant icon tradition).11

In Russia itself the interest in primitive cultures was spurred by contact with primitivism in contemporary European art—in particular by Gauguin’s journey to Tahiti.12 Accounts of Neo-primitivism in Russia mention icon painting in the list of native sources for the new style but rarely attempt to do more than enumerate the general formal characteristics borrowed from icon painting by Neo-primitivist painters.13 Under the leadership of Mikhail Larionov and Nataliia Goncharova, this movement totally repudiated French influence (though after acknowledging its debt to it). These artists declared themselves emphatically for, and responsive to, native Russian folk art—the lubok signboard painting and the icon.14

The timing of the Neo-primitivists’ declaration for native art is significant. It came within two years of Matisse’s visit to Russia, and in the very year of the large, stunning premiere exhibition of newly cleaned Russian icons in Moscow. Critical reaction to this show was swift and emphatic. In fact, the exhibition gave a new sense of urgency to the debate on the state of contemporary Russian art—specifically in relation to its great heritage, the tradition of icon painting.

The icon exhibition spurred Larionov to mount his own showing of icons and folk prints that same year. Most of the works exhibited—including French images d’Epinal, Chinese, Persian, Tatar and Japanese prints and drawings—were, in fact, from Larionov’s own art collection. Though the collection was Larionov’s, Goncharova, rather than he, executed paintings (1909–1911) closer both in mood and structure to icons; she apparently dreamed of decorating an entire church, and to this end prepared 18 sketches.15 Of religious art, Goncharova said:

I hold that art which is religious and art which glorifies the state were always the most perfect, largely because art is traditional to a significant degree and not theoretical. An artist knew what he was representing and why, and that fact clarified and determined his thought; there remained only to create for it the most perfect, the most definite form.16

Goncharova’s religious paintings were held in high esteem by her contemporaries because, in addition to causing a scandal when they were shown at the “Donkey’s Tail” exhibition in Moscow in 1912, they spoke eloquently to the spiritual strivings of her own artistic group at the time. A member of her circle wrote the following about Goncharova’s religious paintings:

All these are works of great artistic significance—not to mention the beauty of their color, expressiveness, monumentality, painterly excellence, all those qualities which are strongly to the credit of decorative art; the most important factor in these [religious compositions] is their amazing spiritual animation.17

While Goncharova’s religious compositions follow icons in their subject matter and in their mood of spiritual contemplation, the paintings of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin (1878–1939) look most directly to the classic formal devices of icon painting, especially “spherical” perspective. Moreover, while Goncharova merely dreamed of decorating a church, Petrov-Vodkin actually received a commission for church icons, in 1911–12 (from Pavel I. Kharitonenko [1852–1914], also an important collector of ancient Russian icons) and painted frescoes in other churches in 1902–03, 1911 and 1913.18 Petrov-Vodkin’s Bathing of the Red Horse, 1912, his Mother, 1912–13, and his famous Petrograd 1918 (painted in 1920) show strong affinities with the formal composition and coloration of icons; Mother and Petrograd 1918 also derive their theme from that of icons, the most popular subject of which was the Madonna and Child. As John Bowlt states in his foreword to the Metropolitan Museum’s current Russian and Soviet Painting catalogue, “Petrov-Vodkin’s Bathing of the Red Horse is a superb example of this new awareness of Russia’s pre-Petrine artistic tradition: not only does it depend on the same dense body color of the old Russian icon, but also (as Dr. Sarabianov points out in his introduction) it contains a deep mythological and philosophical value.” The philosophical relation is specifically to the myth-making tendency of the Symbolist movement, of which Petrov-Vodkin may be said to be the last vital exponent in the early teens.19

Having painted icons and frescoes for churches, Petrov-Vodkin knew just how important it was to study this tradition, but he also realized how fruitless it was to think of icon painting as anything other than absolutely finished and incapable of being revived.20 In the critical reception of Petrov-Vodkin’s work in 1913–23 mention was usually made of the link with ancient Russian art, but a great deal more attention was paid to Petrov-Vodkin’s “striving for purism, for a purity of painterly aims and means. Form, color, purely painterly composition which renders colorful harmony—here are the chief sources of artistic feeling.”21

Since 1910 artists had written increasingly of the basic elements of painting: witness numerous theoretical statements by Kandinsky, Vladimir Markov (Matvejs), David Burliuk, Mikhail Larionov, Aleksandr Shevchenko, Olga Rozanova and Kazimir Malevich.22 Moreover, attention to craftsmanship and its elements had been a vital part of the esthetic of the Russian Symbolist poets—the writings of Andrei Belyi, in particular, a poet, novelist and theoretician who explored the basic craftsmanly elements not only of literature, but of painting, sculpture and music as well.23 This is linked to the development of modern linguistic theory and led ultimately to the rise of the Russian Formalist school of literary criticism, which likewise focused on an analysis of the basic elements of mythology and poetry. Belyi made the categorical statement that “each word is, before all else, sound” (think of Maurice Denis on European painting).24 Such developments in both painting and poetry were linked throughout the early decades of the 20th century. And in painting, especially, the analysis of the formal traits of the Russian icon, as well as of the lubok print, lent itself to the rise of such formalist concern.

Aleksandr Shevchenko advanced a new color principle which he called “flowing color” in his 1913 booklet Neo-primitivizm:

Flowing color is encountered for the first time, as a quite definite painterly principle, in our icons, where it is expressed in the highlighting of the garments by colors flowing (passing) on into the background.25

In the spirit of exactly this type of formal analysis, a recently published study by the Soviet art historian Lev Zhegin (Shektel) is invaluable for understanding the compositional devices employed in numerous Neo-primitivist paintings of the Russian vanguard. His lazyk zhivopisnogo proizvedenii (Moscow, 1970) is an analysis and explanation of illumination, of the different types of perspective and spatial composition and of the S-shaped and the curved line in icon painting, in comparison with Oriental arts. Zhegin’s close association with Larionov doubtless sparked his interest in compositional analysis and in comparison of Russian icons with the painting of other Oriental cultures. As John Bowlt suggests, the very remoteness of such arts as the myth and the icon from life in the 20th century opened them to such analysis.26 Zhegin’s study offers considerable insight into the Russian Neo-primitivists’ appreciation of icons; it has, in fact, pioneered a new area of art history which now should be incorporated into our study of the Neo-primitivists. We can no longer interpret the work of artists like Larionov and Goncharova, Malevich and Tatlin solely—or even chiefly—in light of Western artistic developments.

Without, however, denying entirely the influence of French art, we must now affirm the importance of icons for the early paintings and theater designs of Vladimir Tatlin, for example, who probably became interested in icons around 1911, thanks to the influence of Nataliia Goncharova (then painting her own religious compositions). The importance of holy images for Tatlin’s use of the curved line as the basic compositional device in his Fish Vendor, 1911, for instance, becomes obvious when this painting is compared with the 14th-century icon of Our Lady of the Don. Tatlin’s assimilation of icon tradition is stressed more than once by the Russian critic Nikolai Punin (1888–1953), who even states, “the influence of Russian icons on Tatlin was immeasurably greater than Cézanne’s and Picasso’s influence on him. . . .” Punin’s bias toward the material culture of painting, sculpture and architecture, which inclined him to stress the material qualities of paint as used by the ancient icon painters,27 goes far beyond the purely spiritual abstraction and dematerialization that the Symbolists discovered in Russia’s holy images.

At the turn of the century Russian icons had been particularly appreciated for their links with music. Not only did their iconography in the 14th and 15th centuries draw on images from Russian church music, but the forms of ancient icons were even looked upon as approaching musical forms,28 an idea which alone would have endeared the holy images to the Russian Symbolists. The purity of artistic means which artists and critics required around 1910–15 was held up as the basic criterion for a renewed art of painting. Furthermore, this new art must not use old forms, but must invent an entirely new vocabulary in order to enter “the new era in creation—an era of purely artistic achievements.”29

As modern linguistics discovered at the time, all language is at base an arbitrary system, including the “language” of art. An emphasis on purity of means made the choice of forms and colors based on traditional conceptions, or on the idea of “copying” the visual phenomena of the world, completely obsolete. Instead, a new science of form and color, arbitrary but based on scientifically verified criteria, became a necessity for the avant-garde.30 Scientific analysis of the color and formal properties of painting was central to the larger evolution of sensibility manifest in the art and literature of the years just before World War I, an evolution of sensibility correspondent to a new artistic era, in Kandinsky’s phrase, “the Epoch of Great Spirituality.”31 Kandinsky’s theory of art itself stressed the preeminence of the artist in the evolution of mankind’s sensibility, and described this phenomenon graphically as a great triangle, at the apex of which stands the artist, constantly advancing the consciousness of mankind—which ranges itself in ever broader levels, and ever greater numbers, below him.

Malevich’s new style of painting, Suprematism, may best be understood precisely within the context of this evolution of a new artistic sensibility.32 For Malevich was much involved with the aspiration toward a renewed, purified vocabulary of painting, and strongly believed that the higher evolution of consciousness and human sensibility would first manifest itself in art and literature. His writings of 1915–16 are breathless with this excitement at being in the forefront of an evolving sensibility. Earlier he too had come to appreciate Russia’s icon tradition, and under the influence of Goncharova, beginning about 1911, Malevich painted themes of peasant life similar to hers. Malevich’s 1911 painting Peasant Women at Church and pictures of peasants, such as The Orthodox, 1911, clearly point to the influence of Russian icons and church frescoes. The Orthodox, in particular, has been quite correctly tied to icons, owing not only to its frontal, generally iconic visual quality, but also to its sense of “a security of belief and firmness of purpose.”33

The human face in Malevich’s compositions of 1911–14 gradually yielded to flat planes of color (Portrait of Ivan Kliun, 1912–13; Portrait of M. V. Matiushin, 1913; Woman Beside a Poster Column, 1914). As William Simmons suggests, the face is replaced by Malevich’s Suprematist square.34 And whatever else it might be (for Punin “the square as an actual form [is] characteristic of human initiative”35), the square became the icon of the new age. Although he denied that the icons which hung in his parents’ home near Kiev ever impressed him, Malevich nevertheless referred not infrequently to the painting of the human face in his writings of the time, and, in fact, called his square “the face of the new art,” and “the new face of the Suprematist world. . . . I see in it what people at one time used to see before the face of God.”36 Perhaps Malevich agreed in principle with Andrei Belyi’s view that “in the center of art must stand the living image of the Logos, i.e. the Visage.”37

Malevich’s attitude toward the icon itself, and toward painting in the style of icons, however, is necessarily similar to that of Petrov-Vodkin and of Nikolai Punin. Malevich writes:

The icon can no longer be the same meaning, goal and means that it was formerly: it has already passed into the museum where it can be preserved under the new meaning, not of a religious conception, but of art. But as we go deeper into new creative meaning it loses even that significance and nothing can be invested in it, for it will be the soulless mannequin of a past spiritual and utilitarian life.38

Aleksandr Benois, in his review of the December 1915 “0.10” exhibition, saw Malevich’s Black Square as an icon, writing: “Undoubtedly, this is really that ‘icon’ which the futurists posit in place of madonnas and ‘shameless’ Venuses, this is really ‘supremacy over the forms of nature’ . . .” In answer to Benois, Malevich referred to “the face of [his] square” and stated:

I have the only naked, frameless icon of my time (like a pocket) and it’s difficult to fight. But the happiness in being unlike you gives the strength to go further and further into the void of the wilderness, for only there lies transfiguration.39

Transfiguration is a vital concept in Malevich’s view of himself as an artist who has already achieved a higher stage of evolution, has transformed himself “in the zero of form . . .” As Belyi advocated in his essay on future art published five years earlier, the artist must “become his own artistic form” for “only this form of creation still promises us salvation.”40 This sense of transfiguration through, and for the sake of, art links Malevich again with the traditions of icon painting, for one of the primary personal criteria for an icon painter that comes down to us in all the traditional literature is that he be “a ‘transformed person’ in order to be able to present in his work a transfigured being and a transfigured universe.”41

In order to achieve this, Malevich, along with other vanguard artists, advocated the overthrow of subject matter, as it was merely a hindrance to pure painting: “Painters should abandon subject matter and objects if they wish to be pure painters.”42 Nikolai Berdyaev (1874–1948), Russian religious philosopher and sometime art and literary critic, expressed similar sentiments in 1918:

Only man’s spiritual knowledge can comprehend the transition from the old, decaying world to the new world. Only man’s creatively aggressive attitude to the elementally occurring process can beget new life and new beauty. The generation of futurists of all shades reflects this elemental process too passively. In such ultra-new currents as suprematism, the long-urgent problem of the final liberation of the creative act from the power of the natural-objective world is sharply raised. Painting from purely painterly elements must create a new world, completely unlike the whole natural world. In it must be neither nature with all its forms, nor man. This is not only the liberation of art from the subject [siuzhetnosti], it is liberation from the entire created world, [a liberation] which rests on creation out of nothing.43

At the time of Russia’s great exhibition of icon paintings in 1913 the pertinence of this material to abstract art was more obvious than it later became. In the St. Petersburg art journal Apollon the exhibition was hailed as “a revelation to us all; is it not the beginning of a new artistic consciousness in Russia?”44 Nikolai Punin, after taking the opportunity to compare European contemporary art unfavorably with Russian icons, said:

Can we now count the day and the year of the opening of the Moscow exhibition [of icon painting] as the day and the year of the beginning of our rebirth? Or is it only the final ray of the setting sun? Is it possible, at last, to say: “we, Russians, are proud of our artistic heritage and still know how to erect tents on the top of the mountain,45 over which will shine only the eternal, blessed heaven, Art?” We shall see; today or tomorrow all this will become evident, and it is possible that it will suit us to return repeatedly to questions which can scarcely be touched here.46

There is a definite apocalyptic note in this statement, especially in the reference to the “final ray of the setting sun.” It is a note that is given added emphasis in the Symbolist poet Maksimilian Voloshin’s (1877–1932) reaction to this extraordinary revelation of Russian icons. In a similarly apocalyptic tone, Voloshin likens the time-darkened olifa—the varnish or drying oil used on Russian icons—to a tomb that has preserved the icons’ clear colors. He closes his short article with a statement that should come as no surprise in such an atmosphere of expectancy as possessed Russia just before the First World War. Referring again to olifa, Voloshin says:

Graves do not open accidentally; these works have been thrust out of the grave at exactly that moment of history when they are needed. In days of profound artistic collapse, in years full of the disorder of aspiration and of purpose, ancient Russian art is revealed in order to give a lesson in the harmonious balance between tradition and individualism, between method and intention, between line and color.47

Here, rising from the grave—as the Last Judgment—was the beacon to a new, transfigured life. There can be no doubt that Russian artists of the avant-garde looked to it for inspiration, as a true sign that a new life was about to begin.

Margaret Betz is preparing her Ph.D dissertation on French modern art in Russia at the City University of New York.



The works illustrated in this article are from the exhibition “Russian and Soviet Painting,” which will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, through June 26th. It will also be shown at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco from August 6th to October 9th.

1. These phrases are taken from a variety of artistic statements dating 1902–1916. All are collected and translated in full by John E. Bowlt, in Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism 1902–1934, New York, 1976, pp. 5. 8, 11, 108, 113. I would like to thank John E. Bowlt, Rose-Carol Washton Long and Charlotte Douglas for their articles and lectures, which have inspired each stage of the research and writing of this article: the staff of the Slavonic Division of the New York Public Library, for their untiring help in locating research material. Chief among the basic sources in preparing this article were J.H. Billington, The Icon and the Axe, New York, 1966; J.E. Bowl. trans. and ed., Russian Art of the Avant-Garde: Theory and Criticism 1902–1934, New York, 1976; C. Gray, The Russian Experiment in Art, New York, 1971; and D. and T.T. Rice, Icons and Their History, Woodstock, N.Y., 1974. Translations are my own, except where noted.

2. G. Galavaris, Icons from The Elvehjem Art Center, Madison, Wisconsin, 1973, p. 24.

3. I.S. Ostroukhov, manuscript reprinted in Mastera iskusstva ob iskusstve, VII, ed. A.A. Fedorov-Davydov and G.A. Nedoshivin, Moscow, 1970, pp. 231–232; hereafter, this anthology is cited as Mastera, VII. Ostroukhov began collecting icons in 1909; see P. Pertsov, Khudozhestvennye muzei Moskvy, Moscow, 1925. p. 71.

4. Yu A. Rusakov, “Matisse in Russia in the Autumn of 1911,” trans. J.E. Bowlt, Burlington Magazine, CXVII, 866 (May 1975), pp. 285–286.

5. D.V. Sarabianov, “Introduction,” trans. J.E. Bowlt, to the Metropolitan Museum catalogue Russian and Soviet Painting (New York, 1977). p. 16. Sarabianov has investigated turn-of-the-century Russian painting’s response to this sense of national destiny in a book of essays on selected artists, Russkaia zhivopis’ kontsa 1900kh-nachala 1910kh godov, Moscow, 1971; hereafter cited as Sarabianov, Russkaia zhivopis’.

6. Among these studies are two articles and a book by R-C. W. Long: “Kandinsky and Abstraction: The Role of the Hidden Image.” Artforum, X, 10 (June. 1972). pp. 42–49: “Kandinsky’s Abstract Style: The Veiling of Apocalyptic Folk Imagery,” Art Journal, XXX1V, 3 (Spring 1975), pp. 217–228; and The Hidden Image: The Development of Kandinsky’s Abstract Style, 1909–1914, to be published by Oxford University Press. See also S.D. Cioran, The Apocalyptic Symbolism of Andrej Belyj, The Hague, 1973.

7. Billington, The Icon and The Axe, pp. 47–77, 26–37. The quotation is from G. Fedotov, The Russian Religious Mind, New York, 1960, p. 208.

8. S. Ya. Yaremich, Mihail Aleksandrovich Vrubel’, Moscow, 1911, p. 54; for this reference, I am indebted to Aline Pritchard, currently writing a Ph.D. dissertation on “The Art of Mikhail Vrubel.” See also N.A. Prakhov, Stranitsy proshlogo, Kiev, 1958, pp. 98–99; and N.M. Tarabukin, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel’ (written in the 1930s), Moscow, 1974, pp. 19-21. Reproductions of the above-mentioned paintings may be found in Yaremich, pp. 34–35, 29, 63, 70.

9. J.E. Bowlt, “Synthesism and Symbolism: The Russian World of Art Movement.” Forum for Modern Language Studies, IX, 1 (Jan. 1973), p. 45

10. A. Benois, working with Diaghilev on the production of the Ballets, wrote a fascinating article on the current state of ballet: “Beseda o balete,” in Teatr. Kniga o novom teatre, St. Petersburg, 1908, pp. 95–121; in the same anthology, A. Belyi addressed contemporary drama as a myth-making event: “Teatr i sovremennaia drama,” pp. 261–289. For Evreinov’s productions, see E. Stark, Starinnyi Teatr, Petersburg, 1922; Evreinov’s theory of drama as an integral part of man’s primordial, pre-esthetic nature, though published earlier, received definitive statement in his book, Teatr kak takovoi, St. Petersburg, 1912, pp. 29–39. Contemporary accounts of his productions are in Russkie vedomosti, XLV, 71 (25 Mar. 1908), p. 6. and XLIX, 273 (27 Nov. 1911), p. 5.

The Lithuanian painter Mikalojaus Ciurlionis was also accepted as part of the World of Art movement from his arrival in St. Petersburg in 1909; his interest in native Lithuanian folk arts paralleled the increasing examination of Russian folk arts, and between 1908 and 1910 Ciurlionis published two articles on this topic. These are reprinted in Mastera, VII, pp. 622–626.

11. J. Golding, “The Demoiselles d’Avignon,” Burlington Magazine, C (May 1958, pp. 155–163. P. Selz, German Expressionist Painting, Berkeley, 1974, p. 79. The Blaue Reiter Almanac, ed. W. Kandinsky and F. Marc (Documentary ed. by K. Lankheit). New York, 1974.

12. See, for example, S. Makovsky’s review of the Russian Blue Rose group exhibition: “Golubaia roza.” Zolotoe runo, 1907, no.5, pp. 25–28. See also J.E. Bowlt, “The Blue Rose: Russian Symbolism in Art,” Burlington Magazine, CXVIII, 881 (Aug. 1976), pp. 566–575.

13. Apart from Alan Birnholz’s recent article “On the Meaning of Kazimir Malevich’s ‘White on White,’” Art International, XXI, 1 (1977). pp. 9–16, 55, a single exception is J. E. Bowlt’s comparison of Kazimir Malevich’s Morning in the Village After a Snowstorm with the Novgorodian icon Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, in “Neo-primitivism and Russian Painting,” Burlington Magazine, CXVI, 853 (Mar. 1974), p. 139. This should be supplemented by reading the analysis of the Malevich painting by C. Douglas, “The New Russian Art and Italian Futurism,” Art Journal XXXIV, 3 (Spring 1975), pp. 229–239.

14. A. Shevchenko, Neo-primitivism. Ego teoriia. Ego vozmozhnosti. Ego dostizheniia, Moscow, 1913. N. Goncharova, “Predislovie k katalogu vystavki. 1913 g,” reprinted in Mastera, VII. pp. 487–490. M. Larionov and N. Goncharova, “Luchisty i budushchniki. Manifest,” Oslinnyi khvost i Mishen’, Moscow, 1913, p. 12. Translations of all the above by J.E. Bowlt, in Russian Art of the Avant-Garde, pp. 41–60, 87–91.

15. T. Loguine, Gontcharova et Larionov, Paris, 1971, pp. 33–37, presents a French translation of the catalogue of Larionov’s icon and folk print exhibition. On Goncharova’s religious paintings, see. M. Chamot, Gontcharova, Paris, 1972, p. 36. The religious paintings are listed in E. Eganbiuri, Nataliia Goncharova. Mikhail Larionov, Moscow, 1913, p. IX–XIII.

While the religious compositions reveal the influence of icons and lubki, Goncharova’s paintings of peasant themes, such as Washing Linen, in this exhibition, also bear a direct relationship to a suite of 17th-century Russian miniatures on agricultural and genre themes, reproduced in Zolotoe runo,1906, no. 7–9, pp 89–96.

16. E. Eganbiuri, Nataliia Goncharova. Mikhail Larionov, pp. 18-19.

17. V. Parkin, “Oslinnyi khvost i Mishen’,” Oslinnyi khvost i Mishen’, p. 59.

18. See the list of Petrov-Vodkin’s chief works: “Spisok glavykh proizvedenii K.S. Petrova-Vodkina,” Apollon, 1915, no.3, pp. 21–24. I would like to thank John Bowlt for information concerning the artist’s earliest church decoration. On Petrov-Vodkin’s spherical perspective, see Sarabianov, Russkaia zhivopis’, pp. 33–54.

Church fresco paintings were a significant source for certain of Pavel Filonov’s works, such as Faces, 1919, in this exhibition. Many of Filonov’s compositional devices were influenced by ancient artifacts of Southwest Russia and Siberia. Faces, in addition, has the quality of a Byzantine mosaic in the structure of its color. J.E. Bowlt, “Pavel Filonov.” Russian Literature Triquarterly, 12 (Spring 1975), pp. 374, 381, 392, n.14. The “In Thee Rejoiceth” fresco (destr.) from the porch of the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the Kremlin, Moscow, bears a striking resemblance to Faces. Filonov could have seen photos of this fresco in Zolotoe runo, 1906, no. 7–9, p. 37 and between pp. 40–41, or in I. Grabar, Istoriia russkogo iskusstva, VI, Moscow, 1911, pp. 287–296. See J.E. Bowlt, “Pavel Filonov,” Studio International, CLXXXVI, 957 (July–Aug. 1973), p. 31; and “Pavel Filonov: His Painting and His Theory,” The Russian Review, XXXIV, 3 (July 1975), pp. 290–291.

19. V. Dmitriev praised Bathing of the Red Horse as “The first banner, the first word of an approaching epoch of Russian artistic life,” and related it specifically to icons of the Novgorod school: “Kupanie krasnago konia,” Apollon, 1915, no. 3, pp. 15, 18.

20. K.S. Petrov-Vodkin, “Zhivopis’ budushchego,” a lecture read in April 1912; reprinted in Mastera, VII, p. 448. Other artists were actively trying to revive a Byzantine style of painting at this time, and their efforts were found intriguing, but ultimately merely fashionable, because the business of contemporary art “does not concern the resurrection of an ancient art, but the creation of our own.” N. Punin, “Vizantiiskaia vystavka rabot L. Kramarenko i A. Tarana,” Apollon, 1913, no. 4, pp. 42–43.

21. A. Rostislavov, “Zhivopis’ Petrova-Vodkina,” Apollon, 1915, no. 3, p. 12. Articles in addition to that in n. 20, which link this artist’s work to icon painting are: V. Dmitriev, “Po povodu vystavok byvshikh i budushchikh,”Apollon, 1914, no. 10, pp. 16–17; and M. Shaginian, “K. S. Petrov-Vodkin,” Russkoe iskusstvo, 1923, no. 1, p.16.

22. Collected and translated by J. E. Bowlt, in Russian Art of the Avant-Garde.

23. J. E. Bowlt, “Synthesism and Symbolism,” pp. 35–48. A. Belyi, “Formy iskusstva,” Mir iskusstva, 1902, no. 2, pp. 343–361; his “Print sip formy v estetike,” Zolotoe runo, 1906, no. 11–12, pp. 88–96; and his “Budushchee iskusstvo,” Simvolizm. Moscow, 1910, pp 449–453.

24. A. Belyi, “Magiia sloe,” Simvolizm, p. 430. Denis was very highly regarded by the Russian vanguard in the early 1910s. On the emergence of Russian Formalism, see K. Pomorska, Russian Formalist Theory and its Poetic Ambiance, The Hague, 1968; and J. E. Bowlt, “Russian Formalism and the Visual Arts,” 20th Century Studies, no. 7–8 (Dec. 1972), pp. 131–146.

25. Trans. by J. E. Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde, p. 51. N. M. Tarabukin also wrote especially of the color in Russian icons in “Opyt teorii zhivopist” an essay written 1916, published originally in Moscow. 1923, and translated into French by A. B. Nakov and M. Pétris, in Le dernier tableau, Paris, 1972.

26. “Russian Formalism and the Visual Arts,” p. 139.

27. N. Punin, “Obzor novykh techenii v iskusstve Peterburga,” Russkoe iskusstvo, 1923, no.1, p. 18. For this reference, I am indebted to Gail Harrison, currently working on a Ph.D. dissertation on Tatlin’s Monument to the 3rd International.

Punin’s statement must be understood in the context of his preference for Russian traditions over foreign influence, which he incorporated into his articles from about 1913 on, culminating in his advocacy of Tatlin’s “culture of materials”; see Punin’s Tatlin (Protiv kubizma), Petersburg, 1921, p. 11–12.

28. Billington, The Icon and The Axe, p. 38. Ostroukhov, in the manuscript cited in note 3, draws an analogy between icons and musical forms; reprinted in Mastera, VII, p. 232. The English art critic, Roger Fry, somewhat later wrote eloquently on the musical purity of Russian icons: “Russian Icon Painting From the Western European Point of View,” in M. S. Farbman, ed., Masterpieces of Russian Painting, London, 1930, pp. 38, 58. Cf. John Bowlt’s discussion of the links between painting and music: “Synthesism and Symbolism,” pp. 39–40, 46–47.

29. O. Rozanova, “Osnovy novogo tvorchestva i prichiny ego neponimaniia,” translated by J. E. Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde, p. 108.

30. See J.E. Bowlt, “Concepts of Color and the Soviet Avant-Garde,” and C. Douglas. “Colors Without Objects.” The Structurist, no. 13/14 (1973-74), pp. 20-29 and 30-41 respectively.

On the arbitrary nature of language systems, see F. de Saussure. Course in General Linguistics (originally published in 1915), translated by W. Baskin, New York. 1959. p. 67.

31. V. Kandinsky, “Soderzhanie i forma,” Salon 2. Mezhdunarodnaia khudozhestvennaia vystavka, ed. V.A. Izdebsky, Odessa, 1910, p. 16.

32. An excellent analysis of the history and significance of this evolution in Russia is by C. Douglas, “Views from the New World. A. Kruchenykh and K. Malevich: Theory and Painting,” Russian Literature Triquarterly, 12 (Spring 1975). pp. 352–370. See also S.P. Compton, “Malevich’s Suprematism––The Higher Intuition,” Burlington Magazine, CXVIII, 881 (Aug. 1976), pp. 577–585.

33. W.S. Simmons, “Malevich’s Black Square: The Icon Unmasked,” Paper presented at the 61st Annual Meeting of the College Art Association of America, New York, 27 Jan., 1973. A. C. Birnholz, “On the meaning of Kazimir Malevich’s ‘White on White.’” Art International, XXI, 1 (1977), pp. 9–16, 55, even more concretely links Malevich’s Suprematism to the tradition and meaning of Russian Icon painting.

34. Ibid.

35. N. Punin, “Obzor novykh techenii v iskusstve Peterburga,” p. 22. See also S. M. Eisenstein, “Dinamicheskii kvadrat,” Izbrannye proizvedeniia v shesti tomakh, II, Moscow, 1964, pp. 317–328. Let me thank John Bowlt for bringing this article to my attention.

36. K. Malevich, Essays on Art, trans. by X. Glowacki-Prus and A. McMillan, ed. by T. Andersen, II, Copenhagen, 1968, pp 148–151. Quotations are from: Malevich, Ot kubizma i futurizma k suprematizmu. Novyi zhivopisnyi realizm, Moscow, 1916, trans by J. Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde, p. 133; and Malevich, letter of 3 Apr. 1920 to P. Ettinger, trans. by S. Bojko, From Surface to Space: Russia 1916–24, Cologne, 1974, p. 54.

37. A. Belyi, “Emblematika smysla,” Simvolizm, p. 79.

38. K. Malevich, “The Question of Imitative Art,” Essays on Art, I, p. 170.

39. A. Benois, "Posledniaia futuristicheskaia vystavka, Rech 9 Jan. 1916, reprinted in L. F. D’iakonitsyn, Ideinye protivorechlia v estetike russkoi zhivopist kontsa 19 - nachala 20 vv., Perm, 1966, p. 213. Malevich’s answer, preserved in the State Russian Museum, Leningrad, is reprinted on pp. 214–215.

40. K. Malevich, Ot kubizma i futurizma . . ., trans by J. Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde, p. 118. A. Belyi, “Budushchee iskusstvo,” Simvolizm, p. 453.

41. G. Galavaris, Icons from The Elvehjem Art Center, p. 29.

42. Malevich, Ot kubizma i futurizma . . ., trans. by J. Bowlt, Russian Art of the Avant-Garde, p. 130.

43. N. Berdyaev, Krizis iskusstva, Moscow, 1918, pp. 14–15.

44. Essem (S. Makovsky?). “Vystavka i khudozhestvennaia zhizn’: Vystavka drevne-russkago iskusstva,” Apollon, 1913, no. 5. p. 38.

45. Here too, the theme of transfiguration is evident, for it was at Christ’s Transfiguration, the first manifestation of His divinity, that Peter suggested that three tents be erected on the mountain, for Christ, Moses and Elijah (Matt., XVII: 1–9; Mark, IX: 2–10; Luke, IX: 28–36).

46. N. Punin, “Vystavka i khudozhestvennaia zhizn’: Vystavka drevne-russkago iskusstva.” Apollon, 1913, no. 5, pp. 41–42.

47. M. Voloshin, “Chemu uchat ikony?” Apollon, 1914, no. 5, pp. 26–29.