California Literary Review

Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900-1920: Art, Life, & Culture of the Russian Silver Age by John E. Bowlt

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February 2nd, 2009 at 11:00 am

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Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev and his Nanny by Leon Bakst

Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev and his Nanny by Leon Bakst

Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900-1920 by John E. Bowlt
Moscow & St. Petersburg 1900-1920: Art, Life, & Culture of the Russian Silver Age
by John E. Bowlt
Vendome Press, 400 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Russia’s Cultural Upheaval

On New Year’s Eve 1905, Russia’s impresario of art and music, Sergei Diaghilev, raised his glass of champagne to toast “a new and unknown culture, which will be created by us and which will also sweep us away.”

To a degree that not even Diaghilev could have foreseen, his prophetic words were soon to come true. The story of Russia’s renaissance during the years before the Bolshevik Revolution is an important, if little known, episode of modern history. Recounted in John E. Bowlt’s impressive new book, Moscow and St. Petersburg 1900-1920, it is an object lesson in how the internal conflicts of talented artists, writers and patrons of the arts can undermine even the most promising epochs of human creativity.

The wave of creative energy surging through early 20th century Russia was characterized as the “Silver Age,” to distinguish it from the literary golden era of Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy. Thanks to the groundbreaking search for freedom of expression of Russia’s intelligentsia during the preceding century, the Silver Age artists, writers and musicians made rapid strides to fame. Some of them like Diaghilev achieved world-wide renown. But to an equally great degree, their breathtaking success and rapid eclipse resulted from their own efforts to integrate a variety of artistic disciplines into an all-embracing entity. Human nature being what it is, this synthesis of the arts would either achieve the status of a new spiritual awakening or disintegrate into squabbling, contentious factions.

Russia’s artists and writers of the Silver Age, alas, were very human. Conflicted, doctrinaire, prone to every excess, they suffered from one of the most threatening defects that creative spirits can endure. They were talented to a fault.

Portrait of the Poetess Anna Akhmatova by Natan Altman

Portrait of the Poetess Anna Akhmatova by Natan Altman

At every conceivable point, Russia’s cultural life during the early twentieth century bore the imprint of genius. Writers of the caliber of Anton Chekov, Alexsander Blok and Anna Akhmatova, visionary artists like Mikhail Vrubel, Leon Bakst and Kazimir Malevich and inspired patrons like Diaghilev were matched by counterparts in music, architecture, the social sciences and Russia’s burgeoning Industrial Revolution.

Composer Igor Stravinsky, the aviation pioneer Igor Sikorsky, dancer Vaslav Nijinksy and a host of others formed a constellation of talent worthy of comparison to the leading lights of Florence in the age of Lorenzo de Medici.

The Swan Princess Nanny by Mikhail Vrubel

The Swan Princess Nanny by Mikhail Vrubel

What was lacking amid this embarrassment of riches was a sense of cultural unity or at least of a shared purpose. Bowlt quotes the despairing words of Alexander Blok to illustrate the self-defeating egotism of Russia’s Silver Age elite. “Humanism lost its style; style is rhythm,” Blok wrote, “having lost its rhythm, humanism lost its wholeness.”

This sickness of the soul was deeply unfortunate, as 1905 was marked with twin disasters: military defeat at the hands of the Japanese in Manchuria and, far more serious, social upheaval and revolt throughout the Russian homeland. In 1812, by contrast, the nobles and serfs of Tsarist Russia had faced the French armies of Napoleon with resolute fortitude and unshakable patriotism. The Russian Orthodox Church and the folk traditions of Russia’s Slavic past combined to provide a secure foundation for the Romanov dynasty in its hour of crisis. But in the century that followed, the Tsarist autocracy had repeatedly bungled opportunities to utilize the rising artistic classes to promote the cohesion of the vast, ethnically diverse, nation it ruled.

The artists and writers of the Silver Age were curiously ambivalent toward their native land. The name of the key art movement, promoted by the dynamic Diaghilev, speaks volumes. It was Mir iskusstva or World of Art. Artistic and literary themes from around the globe, especially the Symbolist art of the 1890′s and the contemporary Art Noveau school were analyzed in the articles of the World of Art journal and displayed in the gallery exhibitions organized by Diaghilev. Likewise, art based on Russia’s ancient Slavic past and the bygone glory of the court of Catherine the Great was championed. Diaghilev and his cohorts, however, resolutely refused to acknowledge their debt to Russian realist art of the 1880′s and 1890′s. This socially conscious art, especially the paintings of the illustrious Ilia Repin, had tried to raise awareness of the widening rifts in Russian society.

As Russia careened toward disaster, the great achievements of the Silver Age promoted individual creativity, mysticism and cultural diversity at the expense of the spirit and well-being of Mother Russia. Some of its leading figures felt hopeful that the looming upheaval would purge Russia of its corruption and inequality, dismissing the cost in human suffering that this would entail. Painter Alexandre Benois wrote that “we can feel the approach of universal death (whether this will lead to resurrection or just another metamorphosis is not for us to know).”

The creative heights scaled by the Silver Age artists were dazzling all the same. Bowlt, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at the University of Southern California, is a leading authority on Russian art and culture. His cogent, well-paced narrative is almost seamlessly integrated with a dazzling array of color illustrations and period photos displaying the glories of Russia’s art, architecture and scientific achievements. Moscow and St. Petersburg is a major reappraisal of this fascinating period.

The crescendo of Russia’s Silver Age took place in 1913. Three key events occurred that year, showing the range of talent of Russia’s artistic elite and the growing social fragmentation that their attitudes helped to exacerbate.

From February 21, 1913 to May 27th, Nicholas II and his family engaged in a celebration of the accession to power of the Romanov dynasty in 1613. Despite the impressive parades and protestations of loyalty, the Romanov Tercentenary bore signs of being a production of the “theater of the absurd.” Faced by the threat of war abroad and revolution at home, Nicholas II and his court sheltered in a fairy tale version of Russia’s past. Belatedly, the Tsarist regime embraced the traditional culture of Old Russia, after centuries of imposing Western style neo-classicism on the palaces and government offices it built. The effect of such nostalgia fooled no one but the Romanovs. A photo from an earlier ceremony in 1903 shows the Tsar and Tsarina, clad in 17th century style Imperial robes and looking far less regal than the contemporary opera star, Fedor Chaliapin, in the role of Boris Godunov.

Two days after the Romanov festivities concluded, the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps or Rite of Spring took place at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. With choreography by Vaslav Nijinksy, sets by Nicholas Roerich and the dancers of Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe troupe to perform the tragic dance of death, the opening performance should have been a moment to linger in the memories of those who witnessed it. Instead, the forty minute ballet provoked a riot of jeers, outrage and physical violence. Its pulsating rhythm, in which the string sections of the composition could scarcely be distinguished from the beat of the percussion instruments, touched nerves sensitive to the threat of immanent destruction overhanging Europe.

The implications of Le Sacre, however mythic they now appear, tend to overshadow a very important fact. Le Sacre was a Russian production at every stage. The theme directly corresponded to the ancient Slavic past and to the political dilemmas of Russia’s present. Yet it took place in Paris, not St. Petersburg or Moscow. Diaghilev was frustrated by the lack of scope for his talents in his native land. It was to Western Europe that he looked for success, using his genius for organization and promotion to make the Ballet Russe a cultural dynamo on the international stage, while spurning that of Russia.

The final event of 1913 was the opera Victory over the Sun, presented in St. Petersburg in December of that year. Any resemblance with traditional opera was purely coincidental. The production team was a radical, avant garde group stylizing themselves as “Futurists.” Contemptuous of the high art focus of Mir iskusstva, they aimed to turn Russian culture on its head. In fact, the group, which included the artist Kazimir Malevich as set designer, had themselves photographed against a backdrop of an upside piano.

Costume design for a strongman in the opera Victory over the Sun by Kazimir Malevich

Costume design for a strongman in the opera Victory over the Sun by Kazimir Malevich

Victory over the Sun emphasized jarring images which paralleled the Cubist and Expressionist art then shaking the foundations of Western Europe. Like Le Sacre, it was an experiment in dissonant music, while mocking the pretensions of Russian society. Victory ruffled many feathers, its premier arousing a storm of abuse similar, if less violent, to Le Sacre’s reception five months earlier. One audience member characterized it as “gibberish that resounded from the stage.”

As these three events reveal, Russia staggered into the last months of peace during 1914 as a fatally compromised society. The empty pomp celebrating the Romanov dynasty and the world-class renown of the Ballet Russe could do nothing to staunch the internal bleeding that sapped the life force of Imperial Russia.

Bowlt delivers a harsh verdict on the cultural elite of Russia’s Silver Age. They were “writers and artists who trod the path of self-immolation … who squandered their mental energies as they sought to register the higher harmonies of the Muses.”

Yet, art endures. Bowlt concludes his outstanding book on a positive note. In contemporary Russia, the painting, architecture, music and poetry of the Silver Age command newfound respect, earning these works of genius a permanent place in the cultural heritage of this talented, often tormented nation.

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