Until the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the iron curtain was a firm barrier between Russian art and the markets of the world. Today, Russian painting is highly prized across the world and its history, particularly during the soviet era, is an area of thriving academic study.
19th Century Masters
Under imperial rule Russia was no stranger to romantic art which was dominant in Europe for much of the 19th century. Indeed, many of Russia’s most iconic paintings come from this period. Under Tsar Nicholas I stricter state controls on the Imperial Academy of Arts in St Petersburg led to a tension between some artists and the government which led to the peredvizhniki movement; a group of realist painters, led by Ivan Kramskoi, who left the Academy to avoid constraints on their painting. Peredvizhniki often focussed on the social condition of Russia though the medium of romantic landscape painting. The emancipation of Russian people, enshrined in history in the end of Russian serfdom in 1861, was one of their most popular critiques. As the movement became more widely recognised, it was gradually adopted by the mainstream, being taught at the Academy and influencing the national style, joining with the influences of the likes of Ivan Aivazovsky and Vasily Surikov.
The Roots of Russian Painting
Like many national painting traditions, Russian painting really began with religious works, more specifically icons. These paintings are common to both Catholic and Orthodox churches, deriving originally from Luke the Evangelist but coming to the fore under the Byzantine Empire. When Russia adopted orthodox Christianity over 1000 years ago, it was the Byzantine style of iconography that they adopted and remained faithful to although Russian icons have certainly become distinguished in their own right. It was only after the reign of Peter the Great that Russian painters began to turn towards popular European styles such as Rococo and Baroque portraiture in any large number. Most early Russian portrait painters such as Ivan Nikitin and Andrey Matveyev learnt their trade from French or Dutch artists either by travelling abroad, a practice sometimes sponsored by patrons, or from artists who had come to Russia. From the 17th century onward Russia would be influenced by, and indeed influence, wider European art.
Soviet Russia and the Avant-Garde
By the end of the 19th and into the 20th century Russia was a flourishing home of abstract art styles boasting its own distinct and important art styles such as suprematism and Russian futurism. The Russian Revolution of 1917, however, would have a startling and dramatic effect on Russian art. Russian art in the Soviet era would be characterised by different currents, sometimes under state influence, sometimes subordinating its control and sometimes in tension with each other. It was under Stalin that ‘socialist realism’ was made the artistic style of the Soviet Union but the policies that promoted this iconic style also prohibited almost all other forms of art and subject matter including religion, erotic art, political art and even abstract art which had previously flourished during the avant-garde period. During the 1960s state control of art had diminished enough that a distinguishable movement, soviet nonconformism, could thrive until the late 1980s when the Russian art market was suddenly opened up to the wider world with the first auctions contemporary Russian art since before the revolution.