Art. History. Culture.
The Winter Olympics happen every four years. When I was a kid, I was glued to the TV during this time because I was obsessed with the figure skating and felt certain that I would grow up to be the next Kristi Yamaguchi. Why couldn’t I share the same fame and fortune as she did? We had the same first name after all, albeit the different spelling. Yet when Santa Claus made my dreams come true that winter by putting a sleek pair of ice skates under the Christmas tree, I had no idea I would soon find out that my lack of coordination meant my professional ice skating and Olympic dreams would actually never come true. This reality would soon set in and become more and more clear every time I fell on my ass on the cold wet ice of Lawson Ice Arena at Western Michigan University, where I took lessons until my Olympic dreams fizzled. Now I find the most exciting ice sports of the Winter Olympics to be hockey (like a true Michigander) and curling. Curling is quite fascinating to watch. You could probably drink a whole bunch of beer and still play a decent game, kinda like bowling. Plus, figure skating seems less glamorous now than it was when I was a kid and more of a pixie dancing show of young people who have had no childhoods and who spend way too much money on tacky sparkly outfits. They’re probably all bulimic too. Anyway, my point is that the 2014 Winter Olympics are in Sochi, Russia this year, which brings to mind Russian art of course. So we’re doing this for Mother Russia!
What do we know about Russian culture? Vodka, ballet (The Nutcracker!), sour cream, big fur hats, wooden nesting dolls, the KGB, and colorful buildings that look like ginger bread houses. I think there was a little bit of communism in there somewhere too. This is what lies on the generic surface for many of us, but Russia has produced some amazingly talented authors, musicians, and painters too. Some of the biggest names in Russian art come from the modernist era and into the twentieth century, forming their own avant-garde movement of sorts – not quite my era of expertise but this is the “need to know.” I’ll start with my favorite.
Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944)
Even his name sounds musical. Kandinsky’s legacy is not only as one of the first truly abstract painters but also as an art philosopher. Even if you aren’t crazy about abstract art, which I am not, you can’t help but feel drawn to Kandinsky’s works. His ingenious use of color takes hold of you and his playful shapes and lines keep the eye consistently wandering, and wondering. Kandinsky’s approach to art was not elitist. His paintings were ways to explore all the senses and create forms out of sound or feeling. Music inspired much of Kandinsky’s work. He often formed sketches from what he heard at the symphony, for example, and many of his titles contain words such as composition, ensemble, improvisation, accompaniment, relationship, and segment. (Ever seen Disney’s Fantasia? Get there.) He was a pioneer in establishing the expressive power of linear forms as well as theories of pathos in color and form. One of the things that I appreciate most of Kandinsky’s oeuvre is his published volume Concerning the Spiritual in Art. In this book, Kandinsky writes of principles of art and the foundation of forms and symphonies of colors being rooted in inner necessity. He also writes of the relation of color and form to the human soul and the respective feelings that certain colors can evoke. The title of his book is significant, as art has always been a spiritual experience for many.
Kazimir Malevich (1879-1935)
The gist on Malevich is that he was the founder of a new movement in Russian art called Suprematism. And wouldn’t you know, he even wrote a manifesto! These artists and their manifestos, I swear … From Cubism to Suprematism is Malevich’s foundation for the movement, based heavily on geometric forms and limited flat colors, which inspired many followers as well as critics. The term “Suprematism” basically refers to abstract art that places importance on supreme artistic feeling rather than the artistic depiction of something. Malevich wrote that Suprematism serves art itself. He believed that art should no longer serve religion, politics, or other social causes. He stated that visual phenomena in the objective world was meaningless but that art could still exist for itself in accordance with pure feeling. So why does Suprematism matter? I’m still working that out for myself. The idea of absolute non-objectivity and a focus on feeling rather than “thing” is the legacy the Suprematists left. When I look at paintings like the works below, I think, “opposite of interesting.” But some people can stand in front of them and feel completely moved, which I can still appreciate.
Marc Chagall (1887-1985)
Chagall was a Russian born Jewish painter who later became a citizen of France – he fled there like many Eastern European Jews threatened by facism during World War II. His work is characterized as a synthesis of Symbolism, Cubism, Surrealism, and Fauvism. Like Matisse and the other Fauvists, the use of intensely vibrant colors was an important means of artistic expression for Chagall. His oeuvre shows experience in a large array of media, including stained glass, ceramics, and prints. Jewish folk culture was influential to Chagall’s work and he even dabbled in Christian subjects. Christ’s crucifixion was a meaningful subject for Chagall, something he painted often during WWII as a symbol for the horrors of war and persecution. Chagall also developed new motifs in his work involving fantasy and dreamy realms. In addition to his vibrant colors, Chagall created poetic worlds with floating figures and ghostly forms. His fantastic realms and uses of many different stylistic elements make it impossible to categorize his art into a specific movement. Chagall is truly unique, and his work is a pleasure see in person.
This post merely highlighted a few of the big names in Russian art. Now we must close with a bit of music. I happen to love Tchaikovsky. The Nutcracker was the single reason why I did ballet so many years as a kid and started collecting nutcrackers every Christmas. But the 1812 Overture seems more appropriate for our purposes. It’s filled with an array of emotions from wonder and bewilderment to pomp and circumstance. Click the below link, press play, turn it up to maximum volume (don’t let the canons firing at the end startle you), sip on some premium distilled Stoli vodka, and study a few of Kandinsky’s works. Let the great Russian show you what music looks like in color and form.