Band of Early Russian Painters Gets Its Due

Article excerpt

The Itinerants: The Masters of Russian Realism

By Elena Nesterova

Parkstone/Aurora 255 pp., $55 It always comes as a surprise that the first art of revolutionary Russia was tenaciously experimental. Painters and sculptors like Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and Vladimir Tatlin embraced the idea that art should serve the needs of the state. Since they associated communism with a new vision, they enthusiastically turned to abstract art as a way to express a fresh future. They snickered at realistic representation, which they held to be the disagreeable residue of the corrupt past. The experiments of the early Soviet artists still inspire contemporary international art and design. Indeed, the continuing influence of this brief historic moment is so vast that it overshadows the other Russian art, the populist realism of painters known collectively as the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions. Elena Nesterova's profusely illustrated text, "The Itinerants: The Masters of Russian Realism," attempts to amend the situation by revealing the varieties of Russian Realism from the late 19th century to the early years of the Russian Revolution. Like many European painters, the so-called Itinerants adopted realistic depiction in the middle years of the 19th century. With photographic detail and clarity, they delineated scenes from the everyday life of the middle class, a segment of society that was emerging as a prominent patron of the arts. Teetering between sentiment and insight, these paintings dwelled on domestic life rather than grand historical events. Scenes of romance and weddings were highly favored. Occasionally melodrama gave way to stinging social comment, as in Nikolai Nevrev's "Bargaining: A Daily Life Scene From the Serfdom Era" (1866). Until 1861, Russian landlords had the right to buy and sell serfs. The painting depicts the indifference of a landowner who has lost a female serf in a card game. During the 1870s, when the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions was formally founded, realist painters enlarged their purview. They moved away from mawkish narrative to genre scenes that rendered life throughout Russia. The drudgery and the consolations of peasant life occupy a significant place in this surge of Itinerant painting. At the same time, the Itinerant artists developed a philosophy of art that attempted to break away from French influences and move toward a distinctly Russian approach. Nevertheless, elements of French Impressionism seeped into Russian Realism. Ilya Repin, the best-known painter outside of Russia, infused Impressionist light into Russian scenes like "A Religious Procession" in Kursk Province (1883). Portraiture remains the most intriguing type of Itinerant painting. These painters depicted themselves and other artists in works that were more unsparing than those done for patrons. …