The Itinerants: The Masters of Russian Realism
By Elena Nesterova
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. …