PRINT November 1977

Symbolism and Modernity in Russia

ONE OF THE VITAL but less obvious stimuli to the evolution of the Russian avant-garde and of its various interpretations of non-objective art came from the influence of the Symbolist movement. During the time of Symbolism in Russia—the so-called Silver Age (c. 1895–1910)—artists, writers and musicians gave unprecedented attention to the theory of artistic meaning and form. Suffice it to mention some of the names and institutions identifiable with the Silver Age to realize the extent and potential of its achievement: Sergei Diaghilev and the St. Petersburg World of Art group; the Moscow Blue Rose group; the artists Lev Bakst, Viktor Borisov-Musatov and Mikhail Vrubel, the poets Aleksandr Blok and Valerii Briusov; the Evenings of Contemporary Music supported by Nikolai Medtner, Alfred Nourok and Anton Skriabin; the Ballets Russes; the many private theatres with their repertoires of Ibsen, Maeterlinck and Schnitzler; and so on. These were all products of the Symbolist era and, however different in physiognomy, they shared very distinctive ideas and ideals.

Until the emergence of Symbolism in Russia, the artist there had concerned himself disproportionately with a tendentious, socio-political commitment and had, correspondingly, neglected the formal aspects of his medium. During the 1860s–80s, for example, Russian art was dominated by Realism (not by Impressionism), with inspired narrative pictures such as Perov’s Easter Procession in the Countryside (a condemnation of the Orthodox clergy). Ilia Repin, the unfailing champion of Realism, summarized this ethical bias of Russian art when he declared in 1874 on a visit to Paris: “Modern French painting is so empty, so ridiculous in content: the painting is talented but there’s only painting—no content at all.”1 The Symbolists, however, both writers and painters, tried to reject the episodic function of art and to emphasize its esthetic or abstract value. In word and deed, the Russian Symbolists anticipated some of the major concerns of artists such as Kandinsky, Malevich and Mikail Matiushin. In fact, the more we examine such modern artists, the more we recognize their proximity to the Symbolist movement.

Obviously, it is difficult to summarize or to codify the Symbolist world-view since, especially in the Russian content, it was an extremely complex phenomenon. Russian Symbolism was, so to speak, a sponge absorbing the most diverse and contradictory ideas. Andrei Bely (pseudonym of Boris Bugaev [1880–1934]), one of the leading poets and philosophers of that time, alluded to this in 1909: “At the moment we are experiencing all ages and all nations in art: the past rushes before us. This is because we are standing before a great future.”2

There was indeed a certain climactic sense in the art of the Symbolists, and they themselves appeared as the decorative flourish to a passing social order. However, unlike their French, Belgian and Scandinavian counterparts, the Russian Symbolists, especially Bely and Blok, developed their ideas into an intricate and dynamic philosophical system—one that was concerned with the future as much as with the past. For them Symbolism was much more than an artistic direction. As their colleague Viacheslav Ivanov stated in 1916: “Symbolism would not have wanted to be and could not have been ‘only art.’”3 Just as Kandinsky, Malevich, and even Lissitzky later tried to imbue their esthetic systems with a universal and utilitarian meaning, so the Russian Symbolists considered their art to be a means of advancing from mere realia to realiora. In this respect, Russian Symbolism was a transcendental philosophy.

In the Russian fin-de-siècle, art presented itself as an important medium of transcendence—along with synaesthesia and the “dérèglement de tous les sens.” Art suddenly became fashionable in Russia, a fact proven by the rapid increase in art publications, exhibitions, salons and “Evenings of the New Art” patronized by the nouveaux riches. The private art market, which, before 1890, had scarcely existed in Russia, also expanded at an extraordinary rate.4 Needless to say, the cult of art brought with it all manner of charlatans and parasites, and intellectual centers such as the Moscow Society of Free Aesthetics were apt to degenerate into popular meeting-places for the bourgeoisie. Bely noted with irony that “[patrons] appeared everywhere; the husbands would give subsidies to societies trying to obtain something from us with the persistence of goats; the wives were languorous and, like Venuses, issued forth from a beautiful foam of muslin and diamond constellations.”5 Blok was also disturbed by the popularization of art, as he wrote in no uncertain terms in 1908: “It all engenders an atmosphere not only of banality and vulgarity—worse than that: the evenings of modern art in particular . . . are becoming like cells of social reaction.”6

Despite the plethora of persons and personalities associated with the development of Russian Symbolism, certain of its spokesmen were, and even still should be, heeded. Among these was Blok (1880–1921), the most accomplished poet of the Silver Age.7 Blok is remembered for his lyrical verse and for his plays and letters; poems such as “The Stranger,” “Dances of Death” and “The Twelve” are among the classics of Russian literature. Blok himself was both a symptom and a symbol of his time, and his many efforts to theorize, to philosophize, to explain the phenomenon of art communicated the hysterical mood of the pre-Revolutionary artist. Blok did rely on the heritage of Nietzsche and Vladimir Soloviev in his thinking, but ultimately he compounded a highly individual and distinctive view of the world, one that relates directly to the interests of the Russian avant-garde. Symbolism was notably a synthetic movement, and many of its associates were proficient in more than one discipline: Diaghilev wrote short stories as he organized exhibitions, Skriabin experimented with color sounds and attended theosophical meetings, Bely investigated the exact sciences with no less ardor than he did literature. Now although Blok was prima facie a writer who only dabbled in the visual arts, his perception was a composite one, as is demonstrated by one of his first critical essays, “Words and Colors,” of 1905. We may regard Blok not simply as a littérateur, but also as a Symbolist philosopher whose concepts were applicable to all the arts and whose quest for what he labelled variously as the “essence,” the “global orchestra,” and the “Eternal Feminine” was part of his strong desire to discover the axis of all human culture.

Before clarifying Blok’s own stipulations on ethics and esthetics, we should refer to some of the general concerns and motifs of the Symbolists in Russia. They felt, above all, that the visible world disguised the real world, that the appearance of things was mendacious or, at best, a pale reflection of essentiality. Secondly, the Symbolists identified scientific progress and materialism as the immediate cause of this deceit, regarding technical data and terminology as a feeble attempt to categorize reality: “In aspiring to name everything that enters my field of vision, I am, in fact, defending myself from a hostile and incomprehensible world pressing upon me on all sides.”8 Thirdly, the Symbolists maintained that the artist’s impetus to create should derive not from knowledge but from cognition. Fourthly, they concluded that the traditional media were inadequate either because they relied on obsolete conventions or because they had become mechanical rituals: consequently, the artist had every right to experiment with the media at his disposal, to distort them, to develop them and, in some cases, to replace them with new forms. The Russian Symbolists were haunted by the line devised by the Romantic poet Fedor Tiutchev many years before: “A thought uttered is a lie.”9

Blok, in particular, was acutely aware of the artist’s “inexpressibility” and (as André Breton would also postulate) bade the poet return to the spontaneous and primitive condition of childhood—for the “writer’s soul has, willy-nilly, wearied of abstractions, it has grown sad in the laboratory of words.”10 The question was how to recapture the child’s moment of intuition, how to escape from our lexicon of “rotting words,”and how to find a “reliable” artistic medium. Both Blok and Bely felt that music could provide the answer, that music was the clearest means of communication, that music could overcome the fragmentation of art and life: “Movement is the basic characteristic of reality. It rules over images. It creates these images. They are conditioned by movement. . . . Every form of art has as its starting-point reality and as its finishing-point—music as pure movement. . . . Music is exerting an ever stronger influence on all forms of art. Music is concerned with the future.”11

Both before and after the Revolution Blok wrote much on the art of music, although he presented his ideas most laconically in an essay entitled “The Collapse of Humanism” in 1919. Here Blok referred to two kinds of time and space, a historical, calendar one, and an incalculable, musical one. “We live the second kind only when we feel our proximity to nature, when we surrender to the musical wave effusing from the global orchestra. . . . To the civilized ear this music is a wild chorus, a discordant howl. For many of us it is almost unbearable.”12 Blok contended that true culture depended on this elemental music, for it embodied the spontaneous sense of rhythm that modern man had lost. Blok’s notion of rhythm was a curious one in that he regarded it as a connective device, as a style or musical accompaniment, rather than as a sequence of separate beats or vibrations. Although Blok maintained that the gypsy romance and the factory song still contained vestiges of this rhythm, he was convinced that “humanism has lost its style; style is rhythm; having lost its rhythm, humanism lost its wholeness.”13 At this juncture, Kandinsky’s idea of the inner sound or inner artistic note comes to mind; and when, as late as 1920, Kandinsky discussed the natural, unmotivated rhythms in the gestures of clowns and acrobats, he was actually elaborating Blok’s argument.14

Blok did not analyze the formal elements of art in the same way as Kandinsky and Bely, but he did share their belief that our standard response to visual phenomena was an empirical one. Aural perception was seen to be intuitive, whereas space perception was conditional and fortuitous. This sentiment was not entirely new, and Chekhov, for example, expressed it, perhaps unconsciously, in The Cherry Orchard of 1904. Against the scenario of a concrete and tangible environment (a Victorian house full of objects), the characters on stage twice hear an inexplicable sound from the distance. It is as if they suddenly apprehend, but do not recognize, the musical essence of reality, anticipating what Blok would say in 1909: “An indispensable condition of the writer’s life is to develop ceaselessly the inner ear, to heed, so to speak, the distant music. Only on hearing the music of the distant ‘orchestra’ (which is the ‘global orchestra’ of the people’s soul) may he allow himself to ‘play’ lightly.”15 Blok did listen and, at times, evoked the music of the distant orchestra through his masterful arrangement of assonance and alliteration. But Blok’s interpretation of music was, of course, spontaneous and subjective. It required the more rational mind of Bely to analyze the properties of music and to place it within the hierarchy of the arts:

Music. Its fundamental element is rhythm, i.e. sequentiality in time.

Poetry. The fundamental element here is the image presented in the word and its change within time, i.e. the myth (the subject).

Painting. The fundamental element is the image presented visibly, but in color and in two dimensions of space.

Sculpture and architecture. The fundamental element here is the image in three dimensions of space.

In examining these four groups of the arts according to their elements of spatiality and temporality, we see that in proportion as one element decreases, another increases, and vice versa. . . .

Music. In this temporality is expressed in rhythm . . . Time is a form of inner feeling . . . Painting. [In this we see] the insertion of the material of paints (an empirical element) . . . In this the element of spatiality increases to the detriment of the element of time."16

Bely (and V. Ivanov) argued that our sense of spatial form relied on logical cause and effect and that this was the result of scientific deduction—that is, of an expedient numbers game—and that, therefore, this sense was entirely false. Moreover, Bely affirmed that the human eye was only an approximate mechanism and that it could never capture the real image. He maintained, for example, that our very perception of distance or relief is the result only of the conditioned exercise of the eye muscles, that a newborn baby cannot distinguish “geographically” between the breast from which he is feeding and the star high in the heavens—and that a child, therefore, may be nearer to the visual truth than the adult.17 Inasmuch as our optical experience of perspective, direction, gravity, etc. was an empirical one, our spatial arts were several times removed from the “essence” and served little or no purpose in attempting to reproduce an image or episode that had not been, and could not be, “seen.” All this prompted Bely, Blok and Ivanov to question the validity of painting and to advocate music (“the art of pure movement subordinate to time, and time is a form of inner intuitions”)18 as the primary art. They disregarded the fact that the sensation of music relies as much on perspective (compare the aural perspective of the orchestra) and logical sequence as visual sensation does.

Bely and (by implication) Blok advanced one more argument against the spatial arts—an argument against the static art object. Like many of the Symbolists, they wished to regain the spiritual wholeness that had characterized primitive man. Modern society had fragmented into countless moral, social and political systems, and art, accordingly, had also broken up into many disciplines. Art no longer depended on the single axis that, allegedly, the cultures of Ancient Egypt, Hellas and the Middle Ages had had.19 If we accept this argument, then we can conclude that easel painting is above all the symptom and the consequence of this process: not only does the painting depend on an “empirical” sense, but also it isolates an image from its universal context. Life, as Ivanov said, is a chain of my doubles denying each other, man “becomes” but never “is.”20 That is why Blok attached more importance to the act of creation than to the finished product and why he praised Vrubel’s frenetic attempts to repaint part of one of his “Demon” pictures 40 times: that the result was a travesty of the original design did not matter to Blok.21 The Symbolists implied, therefore, that only the musical art could express this intuitive and spontaneous gesture; everything else was already post facto.

Bearing in mind Bely’s and Blok’s attitudes to music, we may turn to the actual art of their time, especially to Symbolist painting in Russia and, hence, to the Moscow Blue Rose group, with which the two writers were in close contact. The Blue Rose artists, who included Pavel Kuznetsov and Sergei Sudeikin, owed much to the art of the Nabis, particularly to Maurice Denis, and to their own mentor Borisov-Musatov. They used a characteristic system of images or symbols (blue-green foliage, fountains, female figures, embryonic forms) in order to transmit that primordial spirit which, like Bely and Blok, they felt to lie beyond the world of appearances. Just as their colleagues concentrated on music in their poetry in order to describe l’azur, so the Blue Rose artists resorted to a curious melody of pictorial construction based on curves and circles. The counterpoint of forms evident, for example, in Borisov-Musatov’s Gobelin, 1901, and Kuznetsov’s Blue Fountain, 1905, parallels the delicate phonic schemes of Blok’s Verses About the Beautiful Lady (1901–02): we almost hear in these paintings what Borisov-Musatov referred to as “the endless melody.”22 Furthermore, there is a rhyme or rhythm in the actual correspondence of form to color in many of the Blue Rose pictures. Since the predominant form is the curve and the dominant color blue, then the result is a parallel curiously reminiscent of Kandinsky’s form/color combinations of later years (“Blue develops a centrifugal movement [like a snail retreating into its shell] and moves away from you”).23 Above all, the absence of color contrast and of formal precision in Blue Rose paintings disturbs the spectator’s sense of perspective and of space itself: the works become ethereal, abstract.

If the Blue Rose artists deemphasized color as a depictive method, they still imbued it with a psychological and emotional value. This does not contravene the Symbolists’ attitude to color as “empirical,” for what troubled Bely, Blok and Ivanov was the absurd endeavor by the painter to equate a specific phenomenon with a specific color. Color as a sensitory stimulus could still play a valid role in art—as any reading of Russian Symbolist poetry proves. Similarly, the Blue Rose artists tended to apply particular colors for their psychological—not their physical—evocation, just as Kandinsky would do. Contemporary critics censured Kuznetsov and his colleagues for withdrawing from “life,” and there was no doubt that these artists reduced the importance of the objective motif to a bare minimum and anticipated the era of abstract art. Even so—and like Bely and Blok—their art still retained an important, extrinsic justification for it was meant to serve as a transcendental medium, as a method of communication with the “global orchestra.” In this sense, the Blue Rose artists remained loyal to the philosophical quest of the Russian Symbolists.

The aspiration toward the “essence,” the awareness of the totality of the natural world and the question of how to express this, affected several members of the Russian avant-garde, especially Mikhail Matiushin and his wife Elena Guro. Matiushin, a painter and musician, is remembered for his music for the Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun (1913), but his artistic system known as “See-Know,” which he began to devise in the early ’teens, is of more import than his rather tedious passages for the opera. Like Blok, Matiushin believed in the constant rhythm of nature, in the “natural and total movement of matter.”24 He maintained, therefore, that an object should not be depicted in isolation: it was essential to reject the perspectival axis, “the fixation point must be destroyed, the retina must be made the receptacle of chaos.”25 To this end Matiushin advocated not only a psychological transformation but also a physiological one. He argued that man’s vision could be expanded to a radius of 360 degrees, that dormant optical nerves in the back of the head, the temple and even the soles of the feet could be reactivated. The result, he concluded, would be the abolition of the single direction: “Line used to advance from me outwards into infinity. . . . I create a line of direction that passes through the Earth, through my antipode and goes towards the stars.”26 Inevitably, Matiushin found painting to be inadequate and investigated the potentials of volumetric construction and theatre performance. In the latter, Matiushin gave special attention to the interrelationships of color and sound. Like Kandinsky, Matiushin asserted that the “eye can hear and our ear can see”,27 and, like the Symbolists, Matiushin was convinced that the goal of perception was to apprehend the inner sound, the global orchestra or what he called the “higher organism.”

The tragedy of the Russian Symbolists, especially of Blok, is that they rarely heard the “global orchestra.” The more intensely they listened, the deeper grew the silence. Blok himself was all too aware of this defect, as he wrote in a letter to Bely in 1902: “By nature I am deprived of any vestige of musical perception. . . . So I am fated never to express the eternal song within me. . . . I could do so only if my centers of perception were rearranged, i.e. if I were to go insane, mad.”28 Paradoxically, Blok’s poetry can sometimes be extremely visual and concrete as, for example, in the “Dances of Death” (1912): “Night, street, lamp, drugstore, / Stupid, lustreless light.” Such lines suggest photographic techniques, not musical ones. In these moments of “deafness,” Blok even concluded that outward appearance and inner sound were equal. He expressed this desperate thought very clearly in his famous poem “The Stranger” (1906), one of his most melodic and, at the same time, most visual works. In the first part of the poem, he describes his inebriation and rapid withdrawal from the physical world of the “dust of side-streets and the monotony of suburban dachi”; he then goes on to describe his vision of the Stranger or the Unknown Lady, his symbol of the ulterior world. But it transpires that both conditions, objective and subjective, are the same: what the poet sees is merely a distorted reflection of the first environment—hence the pathetic irony of the last line: “I know: truth is in wine.”

Immediately after the 1917 Revolution, Blok seemed, momentarily, to hear the music. He felt that the proletarian masses, embodying his “incalculable, musical time,” promised to restore the sense of rhythm, style and culture long replaced by scientific knowledge and civilization. Blok’s long poem called “The Twelve” (1918) was an extension of this idea. While the poem relates an episode in the lives of 12 Red Army guards who march fearlessly through a blizzard in Revolutionary Petrograd, the effect is phonic rather than visual, from howling wind to rifle shots, from staccato dialogue to snatches of Revolutionary songs. Blok’s use of metrical syncopations, his emphasis on rhythm and movement, his neglect of concrete, figurative images and distortion of perspective and “meaning” (the poem ends, cryptically, with the appearance of Jesus Christ), all, by then, constitute an unexpected verbal parallel to the Constructivist art of Lissitzky and Popova. However curious this analogy, let us remember that the artists of the Russian avant-garde were no less concerned with the “why” of art than were their Symbolist predecessors and that their audacious experiments in industrial design derived immediately from the Symbolists’ wish to return the religious (and only) justification to art. This in itself indicates the crucial role that Bely, Blok and their colleagues played in the formation of a new, dynamic consciousness.

John E. Bowlt, an associate professor of Slavic languages at the University of Texas, Austin, is on leave this year at the National Humanities Institute at Yale. A specialist in 19th- and 20th-century Russian art, his latest book is The Russian Avant-Garde: 1902–1934.



1. Letter from Repin to V. Stasov dated 20 January, 1874. Quoted from N. Pakhomov, Muzei Abramtsevo, Moscow, 1968, p. 132.

2. A. Bely, Simvolizm, Moscow, 1910. p. 143.

3. V. Ivanov, Borozdy i mezhi, Moscow, 1916, p. 137.

4. For statistical information and commentary on this subject see A. Fedorov Davydov, Russkoe iskusstvo promyshlennogo kapitalizma, Moscow, 1929.

5. A. Bely, Mezhdu dvukh revoliutsii, Leningrad, 1934, pp. 224–25.

6. Blok, “Vechera iskusstv,” in Sobranie sochinenii, Moscow-Leningrad, vol. 5, 1962, p. 308.

7. For extracts from Blok’s articles in English and (slanted) commentary thereon see Yuri Davydov, The October Revolution and the Arts, Moscow, 1967.

8. Bely, Simvolizm, p. 430.

9. From Tiutchev’s poem “Silentium” (1833).

10. A. Blok, “Slova i kraski,” in Sobranie sochinenii, loc. cit., p. 22.

11. Bely, Simvolizm, pp. 165-66.

12. A. Blok, “Krushenie gumanizma,” in Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 6, 1962, pp. 101, 112.

13. Ibid., p. 100.

14. Kandinsky discussed this in his program for the Institute of Artistic Culture in Moscow in 1920. See V. Kandinsky, “Programma,” in I. Matsa, et al., eds. Sovetskoe iskusstvo za 15 let, Moscow-Leningrad. 1933, pp. 134–35.

15. A. Blok, “Dusha pisatelia,” in Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 5, 1962, p. 371.

16. Bely, Simvolizm, pp. 219-20. 178–80.

17. See A. Bely, Na rubezhe dvukh stoletii, Moscow-Leningrad, 1931, pp. 169–70.

18. Bely, Simvolizm, p. 78.

19. These three eras were often discussed by the intellectuals of the Silver Age. Diaghilev, for example, regarded them as the highest points of man’s culture. See his article “Osnovy khudozhestvennoi otsenki,” in Mir iskusstva, St. Petersburg, Nos. 3-4 (1899), pp. 50–61.

20. V. Ivanov, Po zvezdam, St. Petersburg, 1909, p. 52.

21. A. Blok, “Pamiati Vrubelia,” in Sobranie sochinenii, vol. 5, 1962, p. 422.

22. Quoted from A. Rusakova, V.A. Borisov-Musatov, Leningrad-Moscow, 1966, p. 95.

23. V. Kandinsky. “O dukhovnem v iskusstve,” in Trudy Vserossiiskogo sezda khudozhnikov v Petrograde, Petrograd, 1914, vol. 1, pp. 60–61. This is the Russian version of On the Spiritual in Art that was read in Kandinsky’s absence at the All-Russian Congress of Artists in St. Petersburg, December, 1911.

24. Quoted from A. Povelikhina, “Matyushin’s Spatial System,” in The Structurist, Saskatoon, No. 15/16, 1975–76, p. 64.

25 Ibid., p. 65.

26. Ibid., p. 66.

27. Ibid., p. 67.

28. Quoted by Bely in A. Bely, Vospominaniia ob Aleksandre Bloke, Letchworth, England, 1964, p. 27.