Cover image for The Icon and the Square: Russian Modernism and the Russo-Byzantine Revival By Maria Taroutina

The Icon and the Square

Russian Modernism and the Russo-Byzantine Revival

Maria Taroutina


$89.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-08104-5

288 pages
9" × 10"
51 color/65 b&w illustrations

The Icon and the Square

Russian Modernism and the Russo-Byzantine Revival

Maria Taroutina

“In the 1909 essay ‘New Paths in Art,’ artist and writer Léon Bakst observed that Russian art could move forward only by turning back to the aesthetics of antiquity, national folklore, and even prehistory. In her audacious analysis, Maria Taroutina places luminaries of both Symbolism and the avant-garde, such as Goncharova, Malevich, Tatlin, and Vrubel, in a wide temporal framework and persuasively establishes a harmonious correlation between their radical stance and bygone cultures.”


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In The Icon and the Square, Maria Taroutina examines how the traditional interests of institutions such as the crown, the church, and the Imperial Academy of Arts temporarily aligned with the radical, leftist, and revolutionary avant-garde at the turn of the twentieth century through a shared interest in the Byzantine past, offering a counternarrative to prevailing notions of Russian modernism.

Focusing on the works of four different artists—Mikhail Vrubel, Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin—Taroutina shows how engagement with medieval pictorial traditions drove each artist to transform his own practice, pushing beyond the established boundaries of his respective artistic and intellectual milieu. She also contextualizes and complements her study of the work of these artists with an examination of the activities of a number of important cultural associations and institutions over the course of several decades. As a result, The Icon and the Square gives a more complete picture of Russian modernism: one that attends to the dialogue between generations of artists, curators, collectors, critics, and theorists.

The Icon and the Square retrieves a neglected but vital history that was deliberately suppressed by the atheist Soviet regime and subsequently ignored in favor of the secular formalism of mainstream modernist criticism. Taroutina’s timely study, which coincides with the centennial reassessments of Russian and Soviet modernism, is sure to invigorate conversation among scholars of art history, modernism, and Russian culture.

“In the 1909 essay ‘New Paths in Art,’ artist and writer Léon Bakst observed that Russian art could move forward only by turning back to the aesthetics of antiquity, national folklore, and even prehistory. In her audacious analysis, Maria Taroutina places luminaries of both Symbolism and the avant-garde, such as Goncharova, Malevich, Tatlin, and Vrubel, in a wide temporal framework and persuasively establishes a harmonious correlation between their radical stance and bygone cultures.”
“This remarkable account tackles longstanding and resilient binaries to reveal ways in which some of the most innovative members of Russia's avant-garde willingly engaged with the cultural and political establishment and deployed medieval visual practice to galvanize modernist discourse in highly unexpected and suggestive ways.”
“Brilliantly complicates and expands our largely secular, future-oriented understanding of Russian modernism by revealing the myriad affinities that bound avant-garde artists and critics to the values of the Russo-Byzantine revival. The historiographic questions raised in this paradigm-shifting study are central to the emerging field of global modernist studies, while those interested in medieval culture and its modern revivals will find much to stimulate new thinking.”
“Nowhere was modernist experimentation with new forms more dramatic and radical than in Russia. Maria Taroutina demonstrates how the reach toward abstraction was deeply connected with a search for the “spiritual in art.” The pioneering artists in this study found stimuli in medieval icons, mosaics, and frescoes; at the same time, official efforts to promote national culture focused on these Russo-Byzantine sources. Extensively documented, this book offers insights into both conservative and modernist motivations, activities, and ideas that made up the densely woven tapestry of Russian modernism.”

Maria Taroutina is Assistant Professor of Art History at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.

List of Illustrations


Note on Transliteration, Translation, and Dates


1. Byzantium Reconsidered: Revivalism, Avant-Gardism, and the New Art Criticism

2. From Constantinople to Moscow and St. Petersburg: Museums, Exhibitions, and Private Collections

3. Angels Becoming Demons: Mikhail Vrubel’s Modernist Beginnings

4. Vasily Kandinsky’s Iconic Subconscious and the Search for the Spiritual in Art

5. Toward a New Icon: Kazimir Malevich, Vladimir Tatlin, and the Cult of Nonobjectivity



Selected Bibliography


From the Introduction

In 1910 the Russian artist, critic, and art historian Alexander Benois (1870–1960) proclaimed that “one way or another, all new artists are guilty of Byzantinism”—a trend that, according to him, was neither isolated nor localized, but signaled a widespread “turning point” in the artistic culture of the early twentieth century. Singling out Henri Matisse as one of the most important pioneers of “Byzantinism,” Benois wrote: “Matisse develops mistakes and blunders into a system, a theory. . . . A return to ‘correct’ design, to ‘accurate’ coloration, is no longer possible for him. Any such return would be a compromise.” For Benois, the term “Byzantinism” signified not only a particular set of modernist pictorial values, which he identified as a “simplified style, monumentality, and primitive decorativeness,” but also a new theory of art that firmly rejected the slightest hints of representational illusionism as an aesthetic “compromise.” Benois’s deployment of the word “Byzantinism” can be interpreted in two ways: either as a convenient metaphor or historical analogy for “modernism” or as a genuine (mis)reading of Byzantine goals and aesthetics as anachronistically protomodern. In any case, he was not alone in equating “Byzantinism” with modernist painting. Only two years before him, Roger Fry had similarly described the Postimpressionist works of Signac, Gauguin, Van Gogh, and Cézanne as “proto- Byzantine,” articulating a cyclical—rather than a teleological—theory of artistic development. He argued that Impressionism has existed before, in the Roman art of the Empire, and it too was followed, as I believe inevitably, by a movement similar to that observable in the Neo-Impressionists—we may call it for convenience Byzantinism. In the mosaics of Sta Maria Maggiore . . . one can see something of this transformation from Impressionism in the original work to Byzantinism in subsequent restorations. It is probably a mistake to suppose, as is usually done, that Byzantinism was due to a loss of the technical ability to be realistic, consequent upon barbarian invasions. In the Eastern Empire there was never any loss of technical skill; indeed, nothing could surpass the perfection of some Byzantine craftsmanship. Byzantinism was the necessary outcome of Impressionism, a necessary and inevitable reaction from it.

Modern art was thus understood by Benois and Fry as an essentially Byzantine revival, one that had

intentionally shifted the representational paradigm, much like Byzantine art had done centuries before. This definition of modernism significantly departs from conventional accounts of the subject, which have largely prevailed to this day. According to these narratives, Edouard Manet and the Impressionists inaugurated a distinctive new style in painting in the 1860s and 1870s as a direct response to the changing fabric of everyday life and especially to transformations in the urban landscape and in middle- class leisure. The defining characteristic of this novel modern art was a progressively selfconscious emphasis on its own materiality and the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Clement Greenberg famously professed that

Manet’s became the first Modernist pictures by virtue of the frankness with which they declared the flat surfaces on which they were painted. The Impressionists, in Manet’s wake, abjured underpainting and glazes, to leave the eye under no doubt as to the fact that the colors they used were made of paint that came from tubes or pots. . . . It was the stressing of the ineluctable flatness of the surface that remained, however, more fundamental than anything else to the processes by which pictorial art criticized and defined itself under Modernism.

By contrast, the early twentieth- century Russian theorists Nikolai Punin (1888–1953) and Nikolai Tarabukin (1889–1956) argued that Manet and the Impressionists marked the “end” of the “whole tradition of European art,” instead of a new beginning, since their practice was still essentially rooted in the naturalist transcription of external reality, a project that began during the Italian Renaissance. For them, Manet’s Olympia was nothing more than a modernist revision of Titian’s Venus of Urbino, rather than a complete rejection of that representational paradigm tout court. Describing the Renaissance as a bankrupt tradition, Punin pessimistically observed in 1913 that “since the fall of the Byzantine Empire . . . European painting had slowly and gradually edged toward its demise. . . . Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir . . . this entire mass of international artists, this entire school of followers—[is] an enormous procession of the dead.” One explanation for this negative view was the absence of a historical Renaissance in Russia, which meant that the nation’s artists and critics had to identify a different artistic “golden age” that they could claim as their cultural patrimony. Furthermore, the external markers of modernity that were so ubiquitous in Paris in the aftermath of Haussmannization were much less pronounced in Moscow and St. Petersburg. By the close of the nineteenth century, Russia was significantly underindustrialized in comparison to the other Great Powers. The country’s population was still largely agrarian, and despite increasing urban development, the growth in Moscow and St. Petersburg could not compete with the dizzying proliferation of arcades, department stores, street cafés, bars, and cabarets that were so prevalent in other European capitals.

As a consequence, several scholars have characterized Russian modernism as an exemplary case of “alternative modernity,” which neither protested nor retreated from the modern world, but instead recast it “as a new, spiritual age.” Thus, for example, in her study of Silver Age poetry, Martha M. F. Kelly astutely observes that, “in Russia’s case, modernism often takes on the aspect of a neo- religious model of modernity,” and the writings of poets such as Alexander Blok, Mikhail Kuzmin, and Anna Akhmatova actively fuse “the legacy of the Western humanities” with the “ritual and insight” of Russian Orthodoxy—a combination that the authors believed could “restore the fractured body of modern society.” In the realm of the visual arts, critics such as Benois, Punin, and Tarabukin looked equally to Byzantium and to Russia’s Orthodox heritage as models of visuality and systems of thought alternative to and distinct from the cultural heritage of western Europe, models that they believed possessed the capacity to revitalize the hackneyed image world of modernity. For young Russian artists, not only did Byzantine and medieval Russian art provide a pictorial alternative to the pervasive salon painting still propagated by the European academies, but it also offered a formal and conceptual genealogy different from that of ascending French modernism, which in turn allowed the emergent Russian avant- garde to lay claim to complete originality and independence from its European contemporaries and—by extension—to avoid the damning accusation of “derivativeness.” Indeed, following Matisse’s visit to Moscow in 1911, Russian commentators repeatedly claimed that the Frenchman had come to Russia to learn about modernism—especially from the country’s medieval art—rather than to explain or expound on modernist practices to Russian audiences. More importantly, the Byzantine visual tradition offered artists, beyond purely pictorial affinities, new ontological, phenomenological, and philosophical possibilities for refiguring the modern artwork.

Accordingly, moving beyond the examination of strictly stylistic influence or art- historical tendencies,

The Icon and the Square: Russian Modernism and the Russo- Byzantine Revival analyzes a dense network of theological, political, aesthetic, and revivalist ideas and motivations, as well as the discursive spaces and artistic praxes that they engendered.

The term “Russo- Byzantine” is itself a cultural construction and for that reason is a fluid and multivalent designation. In the late nineteenth century scholars such as Nikodim Kondakov (1844–1925) and Dmitrii Ainalov (1862–1939) used this term with reference to a type of medieval art and architecture that was produced on Russian soil but manifested “complete subjection to the Byzantine style.” Accordingly, in his various publications, Kondakov went to great lengths to distinguish between “Byzantine,” “Russo- Byzantine,” and purely “Russian” pictorial languages, carefully attending to the minute variations in style and iconography.

By contrast, during Nicholas I’s reign (1825–55), the term “Russo- Byzantine” was applied to a hybrid

revivalist style, in nineteenth- century architecture and design, that drew on both Byzantine and medieval Russian prototypes. Popularized by architects such as Constantine Thon (1794–1881) and artists such as Timofei Neff and Fedor Solntsev (1801–1892), this style was interchangeably referred to as “Byzantine,” “Neo- Byzantine,” “Russo- Byzantine,” and even “Neo- Russian” throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, thus demonstrating the porous nature of these categories. More generally, the rediscoveries of Byzantium and medieval Rus could be said to constitute two sides of the same coin, which fit into the broader transnational category of romantic medieval revivalism that spread through Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. As a result, in multiple instances interest in Byzantium tended to stimulate and perpetuate interest in medieval Rus and vice versa.

However, by the opening decades of the twentieth century and in no small part thanks to the pioneering work of Kondakov and his students, commentators began increasingly to differentiate between the “Byzantine” and “ancient Russian,” and the “Neo- Byzantine” and “Neo- Russian” classifications as discrete cultural, art- historical, and aesthetic categories. In addition to advances in archaeological and art- historical knowledge, rising nationalism played a significant role in the ideological recasting of the icon as a medieval “masterpiece” and a manifestation of a purely “Russian” artistic genius, especially in the wake of the Russo- Japanese War (1904–5) and as a response to the rising international tensions on the eve of World War I.

Over the past forty years, the word “Russo-Byzantine” has been applied both to the early medieval Russian art and architecture produced under Byzantine tutelage and to the subsequent revivalist projects of the mid to late nineteenth century. More importantly, this designation has also come to be used as a broader signifier or shorthand for the Eastern Orthodox aesthetic canon, which comprises a multiplicity of different styles, schools, and iconographies but ultimately derives from medieval Byzantium and expresses similar spiritual, material, and ornamental values. In the present book, I employ the term “Russo- Byzantine” in this final, more expansive way to signify a discrete aesthetic, theological, and philosophical tradition that began in Byzantium and was subsequently elaborated in Russia and its neighboring territories and stood apart from the mainstream practices of western Europe. In doing so, I take my cue both from a number of early twentieth- century theorists such as Nikolai Tarabukin and from contemporary scholars such as Jane Sharp, who have all used the “Russo- Byzantine” designation similarly. Having said that, I nevertheless maintain a distinction between “Byzantine” and “ancient Russian” in instances where period commentators have made a conscious decision to emphasize these as separate artistic categories.

Also wanting definition as I use it is the term “revival.” Needless to say, the revivalist Russo-Byzantine cathedrals, erected in the nineteenth century, were not strictly speaking “reconstructions” of the medieval prototypes. Instead, they were heavily mediated by the aesthetics, tastes, and ideas of the period. Even ostensibly historically responsible restoration projects often tended toward a “fictional” reimagining of medieval monuments in their own nineteenth- century image. As such, the Russo- Byzantine revival was not simply an innocent recovery of a lost artistic tradition but an invested,

purposeful, and contingent phenomenon. This is hardly surprising, given the broader pan- European

interest in resurrecting the artistic achievements of past epochs in the service of new aesthetic goals,

cultural needs, and political demands. In many ways, the “long” nineteenth century can be characterized as a succession of revivalist movements in art and architecture, the most well known of which include Jacques- Louis David and neoclassicism, the German and English Romantics and the Gothic Revival, and finally the Aesthetic and Symbolist movements and a renewed interest in Hellenism. However, many of these movements were not conservative or retrograde “returns” to past traditions and styles but radical protests against the prevailing tastes and artistic practices of a particular period. To state it slightly differently, revivalism was often deployed as a vanguard strategy for bringing about change and innovation in the visual and decorative arts.

[Excerpt ends here.]