Peredvizhniki: Russian realist painters who gave art back to people

What started as an act of defiance by fourteen students of Imperial Academy of Arts, eventually grew into an art movement that revolutionized Russian society and culture

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Until the mid 19th century, Russian art was highly aristocentric and mostly inspired by motifs close to high class society, with little to no relation to common people or their lives. At the time, art was considered prestigious, and as such didn’t mix well with peasants and ordinary working people. This would all change by the turn of the century, with a wave of artistic revolutions led by Dostoyevsky and Belinsky in literature, The Mighty Handful in music, and Peredvizhniki movement in visual arts. Rejecting class limitations and western-influenced art snobbism, these artists successfully pioneered slavophilic, realist, socio-humanist principles, taking the beautiful, tragic and comical in the lives of Russian common folk as a source of inspiration for their art. Peredvizhniki movement, along with several others, would eventually outgrow its initial artistic agenda, and plant a seed for egalitarian and anti-capitalist ideas of Communism that would follow, and eventually, take Eastern Europe over in the 20th century.

History and idea of Peredvizhniki movement

By the end of 19th century, every respectable painter or sculptor in Eastern Europe was a member of a progressive art society from St. Petersburg, known as The Wanderers, or originally Передвижники. What started as an act of defiance by fourteen students of Imperial Academy of Arts, eventually grew into an art movement that revolutionized Russian society and culture. Peredvizhniki, also known as a Society of Wandering Exhibitions, organized traveling exhibitions in Russia, Ukraine and Baltic states, taking art from big cities to rural areas on a quest to raise consciousness among all classes. Members of the movement took a critical realist stance and refused to make aristocratic comfort and privileged life the centre of their art, choosing nature and struggle of lower class instead. Through their work, they strongly opposed the ideas of classism and art for the sake of art, stressing the social and moral responsibility placed onto artists. Peredvizhniki were strongly influenced by a distinguished literary critic Nikolai Chernyshevsky who was noted for his slavophilic, liberal and anti-serfdom ideas, based on self-sufficiency, modesty, and unique beauty of Russian life. His vision was aligned with the ideas of many important writers from this period; Gogol, Belinsky and, most notably, Dostoyevsky, all developed and popularized the term ‘’Russian soul’’ through their work, stressing the power of mind that was melancholic, romantic, hardworking and slightly tortured, yet beautiful beyond Western comprehension. Eventually, this idea was compressed into paintings and brought to public through a series of traveling exhibitions that marked a beginning of a new age in art and history of Russia.

Notable members of the movement

Ivan Kramskoi (1837-1887)

Creator and initiator of a movement known as the ‘’rebellion of fourteen’’, Kramskoi was expelled from Imperial Academy of Arts in 1863. Along with 13 of his fellow colleagues, he was influenced by the idea of artists as moral soldiers, socially conscious realists with a strong despise towards morally shallow Western influence. These ideas opposed the tradition of Academy, which resulted in Kramskoi and his friends’ departure and eventual founding of a group that would grow into the most important art society of Imperial Russia. Today, he is best known for his expressive portraits of peasants in which he painted their psychological traits and life hardships. Even though he never achieved world-wide fame, Kramskoi has influenced generations of artists, and is one of few painters that can rightfully be credited with changing the course of history.

Ilya Repin (1844-1930)

Considered the greatest Russian painter of the 19th century, Repins’ work drew global attention to a unique Russian artistic expression. Tolstoy once said no one could picture a peasant better than Repin whose art was overflowing with social agendas, yet incorporated a variety of symbolisms from Russian history and mythology. Due to his unmatchable talent and worldwide appeal, Repin is widely regarded as the most popular member of the Society.

Vassily Maximov (1844-1911)

A former Iconopainter, Maximov was one of the original 14 students who refused to obey the doctrine of Imperial Academy, and, by his own admission, didn’t want to go to foreign countries for further art studies, but paint Russian village life instead. As Repin once said, ‘’Vasilly Maksimovich was the uncrushable stone in the foundation of peredvizhnechestvo.’’ This would turn out to be true, as he kept painting the Russian peasant life exclusively until his death, even though realist painting lost its popularity by the end of century. He died in extreme poverty with more than 200 of his paintings unsold.

Led by the principles of equality and egalitarianism, Peredvizhniki became one of the ethical forces that introduced Russian society into the revolutionary 20th century. Even though most members’ names don’t have the instant ring to them, such as the name of Picasso, they’ve changed the future in a way latter never did. ‘’A mindless rant’’, what Kramskoi’s rebellion was initially labeled as, led the wave of century-defining cultural revolutions that would eventually result in a political shift that changed the modern history forever, making its members and their ideas immortal.

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