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Russian Art in the Second Half of 19th Century
Kouzma Petrov-Vodkine, The bath of the red horse (detail), 1912. Oil on canvas. 60 x 186 cm. Moscow, Trétiakov Gallery.

PARIS, FRANCE.-Musée d'Orsay presents Russian Art in the Second Half of the 19th Cetury: I Search of a Identity, on view through January 8, 2006. This multidisciplinary exhibition is the first in France dedicated to Russian art, from the second half of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century up to the end of the Czars regime in 1917. While the Russian avant-gard artists of the beginning of the 20th century are better known and have been the subject of remarkable exhibitions, this period on the other hand is widely unknown. Through exceptional loans, in particular from the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow, the museum in Smolensk and the Lev Tolstoï museum in Moscow, a great number of works are presented for the first time.

Through painting, sculpture, decorative arts, graphic arts, architecture and photography, the exhibition does not pretend to draw up an exhaustive panorama, but rather intends to put into perspective the creation of a purely Russian art.The natural habitat, « the Russian soil » have their place here. The return to the national sources, somewhere between myths, history and popular art, is explored in all its diversity, sheding light on the relationship between evolution in the arts and the awareness of a Russian identity. In the second half of the 19th century, certain artists turned away partially or totally from Western models and repertoires, in order to define a national art and style. This movement expresses itself in a rereading of national, historic or mythical sources, of popular art forms, of Slavic literature and stories, as well as by taking into consideration the contemporary social and political reality.

In 1863 a group of young artists refused to compete at the Academy according to the subjects imposed on the students: they wanted contemporary Russian subjects. This «revolt of the fourteen» opened the path to a new realism, liberated from the sentimental and miserabilist painting, that went forward in spite of censorship and deals with the social and political reality of Czarist Russia. Russian photographers, just like the painters, sculptors and architects, are going to express their attachment to the rites and customs of ancient Russia. The way of living in the countryside has evolved very little since the 17th century and the photographic reports, as of the beginning of the 1860s, allow for a little of the Russian soul to be fixed on film. The subjects of the traditional Russia –work in the fields, minor arts and crafts – are the opportunities for the photographers to underline their pictorial choice.

This search for an identity reaches its climax in the Russian and neo-Russian style that affects all the artistic disciplines between 1880 and 1910. During the last years of the 19th century there is a census of the popular patrimony and a rediscovery of the art of ancient Russia. The section dedicated to the neo-Russian movement is one of the strongest parts of the exhibition. The movement found its inspiration in the popular sources and is the most explicit link between the arts and the national conscience. At the end of the 19th century Russia rediscovered in popular art a source of artistic renewal that played a determining role in the emergence of a «Modern style», Russian Art nouveau. Colonies of artists brought together varied talents. In parallel, the magazine Mir Iskousstva, The World of Art, as well as the exhibits it organizes play an important role that is developed in the section dedicated to graphic arts.

This inspiration continues to 1905-1910 in the neo-primitivist movement, in painting –Gontcharova, Larionov, Malvitch – as well as in the research on the direct carving of wood in sculpture –Golubkina, Konenkov. These artists guarantee and claim the fecundity, in the genesis of the avant-gard movements, of the heritage of ancient and modern Russia.

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