Russian Art: Facts and Key Movements

Venus of Kostenki
Female Figurine (Venus of Kostenki), 23,000-21,000 BC. Found in the collection of the State Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

The earliest known Russian artwork, Venus of Kostenki (pictured), dates back to the Stone Age (23,000 - 22,000 B.C.) and was a mammoth bone of a female figure. Since then, Russian fine art has claimed its place as one of the world's most important art traditions.

Key Takeaways: Russian Art and Predominant Themes

  • Religious art was the only visual art form between the Christianization of Russia in the 10th century and the development of Parsunas in the 16th century.
  • Peter the Great encouraged the arts, luring foreign artists and providing funding for Russian artists to receive formal training abroad.
  • The Peredvizhniki sought to come away from the conservative principles of the Academy of Arts, promoting social and political reform.
  • In the Soviet Union, art was seen as a political tool. Social realism was the only allowed art form.
  • Soviet underground non-conformist art developed as a response to the strict limitations on the art by the government.
  • In Russia today, artists enjoy more freedom, but there are increasing concerns about the censorship on the arts.
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Religious Art and the Russian Iconostasis

The Virgin Eleusa with Selected Saints, early16th century.
The Virgin Eleusa with Selected Saints, early16th century.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

With the Christianization of Russia in the 10th century came a need to produce religious art depicting figures from the Bible. Russian artists painted biblical scenes onto wood using egg yolk to mix the colors and egg white as a preservative. The wooden icons became part of the Iconostasis, a wall separating the nave from the sanctuary. The iconostasis, which comes from the Greek words for "icon" and "to stand," plays an important part in the Orthodox Christian Church, symbolizing a separation between the world and the Heavenly Kingdom. The icons were painted by anonymous monks who spent the rest of their time in prayer and fasting. They used birch, pine, and lime-wood panels, and scraped out the center part of the panel, with the protruding edges creating a frame around the image.

The Novgorod School of Icon Painting produced the best examples of icons, having escaped the Mongol rule. It is considered the most prolific and important icon school in the world. The best-known painters of this school were Andrey Rublev, Theophanes the Greek, and Dionysius.

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Ivan IV the Terrible, Early 17th cen.. Artist: Anonymous
Ivan IV the Terrible, Early 17th century. Artist: Anonymous.

Heritage Images / Getty Images

In the mid-16th century, Tsar Ivan the Terrible called his Stoglav (a religious council) in order to approve the inclusion of tsars and some historical figures into the pantheon of figures permitted to be painted by icon-painters. This paved the way for a fashion for Parsunas (from the Latin word for persons) a century later. The same techniques used in icon painting began to be used for paintings of non-religious situations and portraits, emphasizing the sitters' social standing rather than character.

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Petrine Art

Portrait Of The Artist And His Wife

Print Collector / Getty Images

Peter the Great had a great interest in fine art, particularly architecture but also visual art. He lured many artists to Russia, such as Francesco Rastrelli. Peter the Great also paid a stipend to Russian artists and sent them to study abroad at the best art academies. One of these was Ivan Nikitin, who became one of the first Russian painters to paint with the use of perspective, the way it was done in the West. In his early works, traces of the Parsunas style can still be seen.

Nikitin is considered to be the founder of the Russian fine art tradition. Despite his success with adopting a more Western approach to painting, Nikitin was concerned about the increasing westernization of Russian art and reluctant to abandon the icon-style painting tradition. Other notable painters of this period are Andrei Matveyev, Alexei Antropov, Vladimir Borovikovsky, and Ivan Vishnyakov.

In 1757, during the rule of Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth, the Russian Imperial Academy of the Arts was established, first named Academy of The Three Noblest Arts. It was renamed into Imperial Academy by Catherine the Great.

Western influences continued, with romanticism making a lasting impression on Russian artists of the 19th century. Ivan Aivazovsky, Orest Kiprensky, Vasili Tropinin, Alexei Venetsianov, and Carl Bryulov were among the best painters of that time.

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The Peredvizhniki

Portrait of M. P. Musorgsky by Ilya Repin
Portrait of M. P. Musorgsky by Ilya Repin.

Fine Art / Getty Images

In 1863, a revolt by some of the most talented students of the academy against the conservatism that was being taught to them led to the formation of the Society of the Itinerant Art Exhibitions. Members of the society began traveling around the country and preaching social and political reform, as well as holding ad hoc exhibitions of the artwork that they created during their travels. Ivan Kramskoy, Ilya Repin, and the "tsar of the forest" Ivan Shishkin were among the itinerant artists.

Eventually, the society fell apart due to internal disagreements, and Russian art entered a period of turmoil that lasted until the Revolution. Various societies were established and new styles and exhibitions popped up, including those by the avant-garde painters Mikhail Larionov and Natalia Goncharova. Abstract art caused an uproar, with various abstract and semi-abstract movements springing up. These included Russian futurism, rayonism, constructivism, and suprematism, the latter founded by Kasimir Malevich. Marc Chagall, known as one of the greatest Russian-Jewish artists of all times, explored various styles such as fauvism, surrealism, and expressionism.

However, realism was also strong at this point, with Valentin Serov, Mikhail Vrubel, Alexander Golovin, and Zinaida Serebriakova all creating great works.

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Soviet Era

Ernst Neizvestny, Russian-American artist Ernst Iosifovich Neizvestny (1925 - 2016) working on a sculpture in his studio, Soviet Union, 1974. (Photo by Igor Palmin/Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Ernst Neizvestny, Russian-American artist Ernst Iosifovich Neizvestny (1925 - 2016) working on a sculpture in his studio, Soviet Union, 1974.

Igor Palmin / Getty Images

The Bolsheviks saw art as a purely political tool. After the Revolution of 1917, artists were not allowed to create their usual art and were now expected to produce industrial design work. This resulted in many artists leaving Russia, including Chagall, Kandinsky, and many others. Stalin declared social realism the only acceptable form of art. Religious, erotic, political and "formalistic" art, which included abstract, expressionist, and conceptual art, were outright forbidden.

After the death of Stalin, a brief period of a "thaw" arrived. Now, artists such as Aleksandr Gerasimov, who had painted idealized portraits of Stalin, were outcast and seen as embarrassing, and the government's views on art became more liberal. However, that ended quickly after the Manege Affair, when Khrushchev had a public argument with the sculptor Ernst Neizvestny about the function of art. The discussion and the resulting end of the "thaw" led to further development of the underground non-conformist art. Artists knew that they would not be publicly accepted, but repercussions were no longer as severe as before.

From the mid-70s, more artists emigrated, encouraged by the more open borders and unwilling to stay in the restrictive atmosphere of the Soviet Union. Ernst Neizvestny moved to the US in 1977.

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Contemporary Art in Russia

Ship Of Tolerance By World Renowned Artists Ilya And Emilia Kabakov MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 03: Artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov pose with their work 'The Ship of Tolerance' at Miami Childrens Museum on December 3, 2011 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Larry Marano/Getty Images)
Ship Of Tolerance By World Renowned Artists Ilya And Emilia Kabakov MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 03: Artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov pose with their work 'The Ship of Tolerance' at Miami Childrens Museum on December 3, 2011 in Miami, Florida.

Larry Marano / Getty Images

The 1990s brought freedom never before experienced by Russian artists. Performance art appeared in Russia for the first time, and it was a time of experimentation and fun. This enormous freedom was curbed in the new millennium, although Russian art is still in its most abundant period. Many artists have found a customer base both inside and outside Russia, but there are concerns that the increasing censorship is making it difficult to create authentic art. Among the best-known contemporary Russian artists are conceptual installation artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, the co-founder of Moscow conceptualism Viktor Pivovarov, an installation artist Irina Nakhova, Alexei Chernigin, and many more.

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Nikitina, Maia. "Russian Art: Facts and Key Movements." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Nikitina, Maia. (2020, August 28). Russian Art: Facts and Key Movements. Retrieved from Nikitina, Maia. "Russian Art: Facts and Key Movements." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).