Reviewed: World of Art Movement in Early 20th Century Russia by Vesevolod Petrov and Alexander Kamensky. Translated from the Russian by Arthur Shkarovsky. Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad, 1991.
This is a curious book, half glossy art book, half social history of a Russia on the eve of the Soviet Revolution. Black and white photos of WWI devastation, personalities of the time, society balls and events are interspersed with reproductions of the works of Leon Bakst, Alexander Benois, Ivan Bilibin, Sergei Diaghilev, Alexander Golovin, Igor Grabar, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Boris Kustodiev, Evgeny Lanceray, Dmitry Mitrokhin, Georgi Narbut, Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, Nicholas Roerich, Nikolai Sapunov, Zaida Serebryakova, Valetin Serov, Constantin Somov and Sergei Sudeikin. Some reproductions are ink sketches or black and white photos, but the great majority are in excellent colour.
As noted on the website page ( http://www.oil-painting-techniques.com/analysis-valentin-serov.html
), the eclectic 'World of Art' movement owed much to the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who gave the leading Russian artists of the day — Somov, Bakst, Repin, Benois, Lanceray, Kustodiev, Serov, Sapunov — a place on the international stage and encouraged them to revitalize painting, book illustration and theater design. The artists concerned had their individual styles, all immediately recognizable, but were united in their reverence for the work of the past and an openness to new ideas, particularly to the Impressionists of France.
The book is built around an extended essay by Vsevolod Petrov (1912-78), which was written under the usual Soviet constraints, although the World of Art movement was not generally opposed to the Bolshevik revolution. In their travels throughout Russia, many artists had indeed developed acute social consciences, and welcomed the Soviet takeover, if becoming disaffectd afterwards. Petrov was a close chronicler of artists, whom he researched while working in Leningrad’s Russian Museum, and the essay is detailed, factual and largely independent of Marxist theory. It is not evocative of the artistic life, however, and there are no extended flights of imaginative prose so beloved of western art critics: Petrov’s aim was to document while the material was still available.
The result of mixing contemporary photographs reproductions of art works and detailed gallery notes is a little odd but charming. It’s certainly difficult to read such a composition straight through, but what comes over is a keen enthusiasm for the period and a sense of what it was like to live in the last days of the Russian empire: a vanished world that readers of Dostoevsky, Checkov and Bunin will enjoy. The book also illustrates a different approach to that of Modernism, not repudiating the past but incorporating and further developing its techniques and ideas.
The book is now out of print, but can be obtained from libraries and second-hand booksellers.