Does fine art of Russian-speaking origin exist?

Does fine art of Russian-speaking origin exist?
25 May 2023

On the world cultural stage, it’s fair to say that both Russian and native Russian-speaking demographics are very well represented, though primarily on the platforms of theatre, film and literature. The artistic backdrop of much of the last 200 years, as Modern Art arrived and departed (not to mention the vast contributions of the likes of Renaissance painters like Leonardo and his numerous compatriots), has been an undeniably western-European endeavour. The Italians, French and Dutch dominate, the British contribute, but for many avid art fans, the practice has never brought any artists of Russian-speaking origin to the fore, or to at least household-name status. So, does fine art of Russian-speaking origin exist?


Naturally, the answer is yes, and it’s such a resounding yes with such an extent that it is only appropriate that I cover this topic with my characteristic ‘rule of three’ approach, so as not to strain any potential readers. With that being said, Russian-speaking backgrounds have produced some of the finest artists in recent memory, the three that follow are far from exhaustive. That is to say, Ivan Aivazovsky, Kazimir Malevich and Mark Rothko.


Ivan Aivazovsky


We begin with Aivazovsky (1817-1900), who is widely considered to be one of the finest Marinist painters to have ever lived, despite him being privy to next to no recognition in the west. Aivazovsky’s enormous canvases are almost entirely devoted to sprawling, ambitious seascapes that echo a certain Turner-esque quality. Indeed, the Briton preceded Aivazovsky by nearly half a century, but their respective careers certainly underwent a temporal and creative overlap nevertheless. Despite the Anglo-Russian Marinist overlap, Aivazovsky ultimately stayed true to the classic painters that preceded him in terms of influence, and the school of Romanticism when it came to discipline. The vast crashing waves his brushstrokes depict are a worthy colourisation of many a Byronic lyric. One of the most infamous of Aivazovsky’s works – and perhaps, my personal favourite –  ‘Девятый вал’ (The Ninth Wave), hangs in the Russian Museum, St Peterburg, like much of his creative output, and is magnificent. As happens amongst the creative, disciplines interacted, Russian literature and art collided when the great Anton Chekhov met Aivazovsky in 1888. This encounter led Chekhov to coin the widely known aphorism ‘достойный кисти Айвазовского’ (worthy of Aivazovsky’s brush) – an appropriate honour for a titan of Russian Romantic art.


Kazimir Malevich


Malevich’s (1879-1935) creative handwriting certainly differed from the classical Romantic of Aivazovsky and his devotion to the natural world. Nevertheless, Malevich’s work is some of the most influential and iconic to have graced the 20th century, and the movement he established was revolutionary. What is perhaps the most convention-challenging artwork of said century was his 1915 ‘Black Square’; quite literally a black square painted on canvas which both bewildered and incensed traditionalist devotees, but also served as the paragon of Malevich’s self-ascribed discipline of ‘Suprematism’. The Suprematist style characterised much of early 20thcentury Russian, and subsequently, Soviet art and later, propaganda. Malevich relinquished conventional attention to the detail of form, instead enlisting a focus on the fundaments of structural form. Though, he was particularly vocal on Suprematism’s distinction from Constructivism – a concurrent emerging art form, spawned out of postrevolutionary Russia – wherein the austere elements of structure are intended to reflect the austere physical structural space in this time period. That is, their utilitarian and materialist underpinnings. Malevich’s Suprematism became an icon of early Soviet art and propaganda, and its’ ontologically disparate (but visually resemblant) relative, Constructivism, would go on to influence much of ensuing art and even an album cover for Franz Ferdinand’s 2005 album. It’s safe to say, Malevich’s impact was profound.


Mark Rothko


In comparison to the two aforementioned, Rothko is likely far more widely recognised in the western art sphere, owing to his spending his whole creative life in the US. Rothko was, however, born in Daugavpils (then known as Dvinsk), the second largest city in the Latvian SSR and one that, to this day, is almost exclusively Russian speaking. In fact, Rothko’s surname is itself an anglicisation of his birth name – Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz. Rothko was a figurehead of the 20th century, both for his early investigations into abstract expressionism, and his pioneering Colour Field style which would earn his name’s place in the history books. The Rothko rectangle of colour, a feature that characterised the majority of his output during his ‘mature period’ depict not form, but are designed to evoke and emotional response from the viewer. Rothko completely abandons any utilitarian value in his work, instead, he seeks to educe a physiological response. Naturally, he is heralded as one of the finest painters of the century.

Patrick, currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, Riga. 

Image Credit: Patrick Groves

Posted by Patrick Groves

Hi, I'm Patrick. I'm a student at Wadham College, University of Oxford spending most of my time writing essays on Tolstoy or in one of Oxford's many pubs. I'm currently studying Russian at Liden and Denz, Riga.

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