- Modernism and the Spiritual in Russian Art: New PerspectivesOur PickEdited by Louise Hardiman and Nicola Kozicharow
- The Art of Mikhail Vrubel (1856-1910)Our PickBy Aline Isdebsky-Pritchard
- The Russian Experiment in Art: 1863-1922By Camilla Gray
- From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925, From Moscow and St PetersburgBy Albert Kostenevich, Anna Poznanskaya, Alexei Petukhov, Lydia Iovleva, Yevgenia Petrova, Vladimir Lenyashin, Hubertus Gassner, and Christina Lodder
- New Perspectives on Russian and Soviet Artistic Culture: Selected Papers from the Fourth World Congress for Soviet and East European StudiesBy John O. Norman (ed.)
- Art Periodical Culture in Late Imperial Russia (1898-1917): Print Modernism in TransitionBy Hanna Chuchvaha
Important Art by Mikhail Vrubel
Hung between highly decorative columns and an arch, The Virgin and Child is one of several murals Vrubel helped restore in the Church of Saint Cyril in Kiev during the early 1880s. Though they were restorations rather than original works (Vrublev worked as part of a team of students restoring over 150 works over a period of seven months) the murals still carried the artist's signature style.
The formal composition of The Virgin and the Child is taken from conventional depictions of the Virgin and Christ and demonstrates the Vrubel's full engagement with Russian, Byzantine, and medieval Christian pictorial traditions. The folds of the fabric, the pensive facial expressions, and the use of rich colors and gold are akin to that which Vrubel would have seen in Russian orthodox churches growing up, and also on his travels to Venice undertaken in the same year that this piece was painted.
In his 1911 biography of Vrubel, the artist Stepan Iaremich described the works produced in Kiev during the 1880s as the best of Vrubel's career. Whilst this opinion may not hold up to scrutiny, Iaremich's comments do account for the importance of the Kiev paintings in developing a style seen throughout Vrubel's later work. The murals at the Church of Saint Cyril can be seen in fact as the beginnings of Vrubel's exploration of spirituality and personal faith, ahead of his rejection of religion and experiments with Symbolism. Here, in the solemnity and thoughtfulness of the figures' gazes, the viewer can begin to see Vrubel contemplating fulfillment and peace as attained through insight and personal reflection.
Whilst still working in Kiev on the restoration project, Vrubel began to experiment with illustrations of "The Demon" which he based on the description of a Demon in a poem by Mikhail Lermontov, the most important poet and writer of the period and, to this day, the greatest hero of Russian Romanticism. The influence of the Saint Cyril restoration is clear in Vrubel's use of thick brushstrokes to create a mosaic-like texture. This is particularly apparent to the right of the Demon figure, where the geometric shapes created by the brushwork break the plane down into an abstract space. As the art historian Maria Taroutina notes, here the viewer can see Vrubel employing "medieval means to modernist ends". Vrubel's treatment of the figure of the Demon is finely detailed while he emphasizes the mood of solitude by placing his subject against a blank and infinite, background. The monumentality of this work was described by Vrubel's patron Mamontov as the "fascinating symphonies of a genius".
Vrubel himself described the Demon as "a spirit which unites in itself the male and female appearances, a spirit which is not so much evil as suffering and wounded [...] a powerful and noble being". The ambiguity of the Demon's gender is mirrored in the uncertainty of the setting. The landscape is distant and creates feelings of solitude and uneasiness: the Demon could be looking off into the distant sunset, or it could be the fires of hell. This painting demonstrates Vrubel's own personal rejection of Christianity and the fixed stability of religion at this time in his life in favor of a view that creative accomplishment would bring him spiritual content. The Demon is pensive and expressive, weighing up in his mind personal faith, torment, and resignation, much like Vrubel himself did in these years before he was admitted to psychiatric care.
Isolated and reflective, Vrubel rejects the traditional religious view of the Demon as an evil being, blurring the boundaries between good and evil - Christ and Satan - to give a more modern view on the spiritual individual. In this rejection of traditional dichotomy, the artist urges the viewer to consider instead the individual soul: the sense that introspection is the path, not mass religion.
In this portrait, the viewer can see the influence of folk art and the church mosaics and murals Vrubel helped to restore in his early career. The artist uses thick brushstrokes to create a mosaic-effect in the background of the painting, using subdued colors to make the bolder figure of Mamontov stand out in the foreground. Surrounded by the objects associated with a wealthy art collector, such as luxurious fabrics and furniture, Mamontov is also dressed the part in his pristine suit. It demonstrates what art historian James Curtis describes as the "strong theatrical quality" of Vrubel's art.
Vrubel is less well-known as a portrait painter (perhaps as it is not abstract enough a medium to convey Symbolist ideas) but he did produce many during his lifetime. What is significant to note, however, is that his portrait work mainly consists of depictions of people he knew well, such as the poet Valery Bryusov and his own wife Nadezhda Zabela, who Vrubel painted repeatedly. Therefore it seems only natural that Vrubel would paint such a portrait of his patron and friend Savva Mamontov during his residency at Mamontov's artist community: the Abramtsevo Estate. The pair were close, with Vrubel accompanying the Mamontov family on a holiday to Italy in 1891. A descendent of a wealthy merchant family, Mamontov encouraged and celebrated artists working across disciplines with interests in traditional Russian folklore and crafts. The art historian Hanna Chuchvaha describes Abramtsevo as a place which "represented a revival of vernacular art and the stylization of folk art".