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Sunday, December 10, 2017

Viktor Vasnetsov

Alyonushka, Knight at the Crossroads, 1822, Viktor Vasnetsov.
I've long contended, and history has proven me out, that the most versatile artists are the most successful artists. Despite isolated eras such as the Dutch Golden Age, few painters can make much of a living specializing in only one subject. It almost goes without saying that an artist is going to be better at painting one subject over another, but that does not mean they can, or should, go far by refusing to paint anything else. Personally, I think I'm better at painting portraits than other subjects, but I can think of very few content areas which I've not painted at least once. I consider myself about equally adept in handling landscapes, still-lifes, genre, animals, planes, trains, and automobiles. That's because I've consciously avoided specializing in any of those items. Moreover, I'm only slightly better at portraits than all the others. Viktor Vasnetsov was a Russian painter working around the turn of the century, (1870s until his death in 1926). Like myself he refused to specialize at a time when many other Russian painters were inclined to do so.
From priest to painter.
In 1870, Vasnetsov befriended Ivan Kramskoy to become a part of his association of Realist artists, the Peredvizhniki (the Itinerants). Despite Vasnetsov’s later fame for historical and mythological scenes, his works of the 1870s celebrated on the common business of life. Best known as a painter of historical and mythological scenes, Viktor Vasnetsov was born in 1848 in Lopiyal, in Viatka Province (near what is now Kirov, northeast of Moscow). He originally intended to follow his father and grandfather into the priesthood. From the age of ten, Vasnetsov attended seminary. While studying in Ryabovo, he helped a local icon painter with his trade and aided exiled Polish artist Antiroll to make frescoes for the Aleksandr Nevsky Cathedral. Upon graduating from seminary, however, Vasnetsov decided to pursue his own course. He auctioned two of his own paintings to fund a move to St. Petersburg, where in 1867 he began to attend the Imperial Academy of the Arts.
The Flying Carpet, 1880, Victor Vasnetsov
Victor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov was among the first painters to turn to bylinas, fantastic plots. He was convinced that in fairy tales, songs, bylinas, drama, and other affects, the entire face of a whole nation can be seen, internal and external, past and present, as well as the future. Vasnetsov's Flying Carpet (above) from 1880, was the first fairy tale picture Vasnetsov, created. Vasnetsov never consciously chose to cross the line to a fine art motif. He expressed his people's long-standing dream of a free flight, giving the painting a poetic resonance. In the wonderful skies of his childhood Vasnetsov depicted soaring as if on a fabulous birdlike carpet. The hero, in elegant attire, proudly stands on the carpet, holding his golden ring, a cell extracted from The Firebird, with its unearthly glow. All was unmuted in bright colors, a brilliant example of the decorative capabilities of the young artist. The painting was commissioned by Savva Ivanovich Mamontov, a major industrialist and philanthropist, who helped to unite talent in the creative artistic alliance, known as the Abramtsevo circle. As chairman of the Donetsk Railway Construction Company, he commissioned the artist to do three paintings, which were to decorate the board room offices as fabulous illustrations to the awakening of a new railroad-rich Donetsk region. One of those pictures was Flying Carpet, an amazingly fast means of transportation.

Four Horsemen of Apocalypse, 1887, Viktor Vasnetsov
Among the historical painters of the turn of the 19th-century, Viktor Vasnetsov is probably best noted for his depth of feeling and the power of his style. A painter, draftsman and graphic artist, Vasnetsov played a primary role in the development of Russian art from the realist traditions of the wanderers to Art Nouveau. He is considered a key figure in the revivalist movement in Russian art. The Peredvizhniki (Wanderers) movement of realist artists rebelled against Academism. Vasnetsov befriended their leader, Ivan Kramskoy, referring to him as his teacher. He also became very close to his fellow student, Ilya Repin, another prominent Russian artist. Ironically, Vasnetsov, who is intricately associated with historical and mythological paintings, initially avoided those subjects at all costs.

Avoiding folklore, Vasnetsov painted the Kremlin instead.
In 1876 Ilya Repin invited Vasnetsov to join the Wanderers colony in Paris. While living in France, Viktor studied classical and contemporary painting. It was also during this time that he began to discover what would become his primary source of inspiration--Russian mythology with its legends, ballads, and fairytales. Folklore was still very much alive in the north-central Russia.
The Bogatyrs, 1898, Viktor Vasnetsov
From the Russian village where he grew up, Vasnetsov found that his very soul was steeped in the poetry of Russian epic literature. Not only was he one of the first artists to turn to folklore for inspiration, but he also one of the first to study it in terms of method and technique. The Bogatyrs (above) is a later example of Vasnetsov's Russian folklore paintings. Thus he became the founder of a new style in Russian painting. In the late 1870s Vasnetsov concentrated on illustrating Russian fairytales and tall-tales. During this period, he executed some of his best known pieces such as Alyonushka, Knight at the Crossroads (top). The works, however, were not appreciated at the time they appeared. Even such prominent connoisseurs as Pavel Tretyakov refused to buy them. The popularity of Vasnetsov’s paintings would spread in the 1880s, when he turned to religious subjects and executed a number of icons for the Abramtsevo Estate of his patron, Savva Mamontov.

Last Judgment, 1880s, Viktor Vasnetsov.
From 1884 until about 1889 Vasnetsov was commissioned to paint frescoes in St. Vladimir’s Cathedral in Kiev. It was challenging work. Vasnetsov welcomed the offer as an opportunity to create an integral ensemble comparable to those done by ancient fresco-painters. Work on the decoration of the cathedral took over ten years, during which time Vasnetsov executed some 400 sketches and studies. The murals he and his assistants painted covered almost two thousand square meters. In fulfilling this assignment, Vasnetsov relied on his favorite range of motifs and characters, painting the walls with the images of Princes Vladimir, Alexander Nevsky and Andrey Bogoliubsky, Princess Olga, the chronicler Nestor, and other outstanding figures from Russian history.

The Baptism of Russia, 1896, Viktor Vasnetsov.
Reaction to Vasnetsov's Kiev murals were mixed. The influential art critic Vladimir Stasov called the frescoes “a sacrilegious play on the religious feelings of the Russian people.” However, another popular critic, Dmitry Filosofov, referred to them as “...the first bridge over the 200-year-old gulf separating different classes of Russian society.” In keeping with the general tendencies in the development of Russian art at the end of the 19th-Century, an important role is played in Vasnetsov's works by landscape elements, “moods” which unite people and nature, akin to folklore “parallelism” imagery.

Joy of the Lord, the Righteous, 1884-89, Viktor Vasnetsov.
These three segments connect but the images were not
photographed in a manner allowing me to do so here. 
In 1885 the painter traveled to Italy. That same year he worked on stage designs and costumes for Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Snow Maiden. Later on, Vasnetsov collaborated with his brother, Apollinary, on the theatrical design of another Rimsky-Korsakov premiere, “Sadko” in 1897. In the 1910s Vasnetsov was commissioned to design a new uniform for the Russian military and produced the so-called “bogatyrka” military cap. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Vasnetsov demonstrated his versatility as an artist by working actively worked in several different fields (even architecture)..

Viktor Vasnetsov's younger brother was also an artist. At various times the two collaborated.
In 1894 Vasnetsov designed his own mansion. The house, built to his plans in Moscow, was turned into the Vasnetsov House Museum (bottom) in 1953. The picturesque wooden house that Vasnetsov lived in has some beautiful wooden furniture and several of Vasnetsov's paintings of fairytale characters such as Sleeping Beauty and Baba Yaga in the studio upstairs. Unlike many house-museums where the furniture has been brought in to approximate the requisite era, everything here is original, from the 19th century benches to the huge canvases in the wooden attic. Vasnetsov's paintings here are at least as good as the ones in the Tretyakov Gallery, the facade of which Vasnetsov designed in 1906.

Two of Viktor Vasnetsov's sons also became artists.
Vasnetsov House Museum, Moscow


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