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'Silver Age: Russian Art in Vienna around 1900' exhibition opens at the Belvedere
Boris M. Kustodiev, The Family, 1905. Oil on canvas, 182.5 x 198 cm© Belvedere, Vienna.

VIENNA.- The Belvedere’s exhibition Silver Age - Russian Art in Vienna around 1900, showing from 27 June to 28 September 2014 , explores Russian art and the cultural links between Russia and Austria in the early twentieth century. The term Silver Age refers to the cultural heyday in Russian literature and the fine arts after 1900 and is considered to be the equivalent of the German term Jugendstil or Art Nouveau.

Two exhibitions organized by the Vienna Secession in 1901 and 1908 introduced the Viennese public to contemporary Russian art, which was extremely well received by both critics and collectors. While the first exhibition was dedicated to art in Nordic countries and only had one section on Russia, the second was devoted entirely to modern Russian art. It placed an emphasis on established artists from the group World of Art ( Mir Iskusstva ), as well as exponents of the young association of artists Blue Rose ( Golubaya Roza ), the last generation of Russian Art Nouveau. At this 1908 exhibition, three paintings were purchased for the Moderne Galerie (today’s Belvedere), including the important portrait of the Polenov Family by Boris M. Kustodiev that had been previously rejected by the conservative Russian art scene. The exhibition Silver Age will showcase Russian artists whose work could have been seen in Vienna over a hundred years ago. It thus illustrates the mutual influences of this cultural exchange between Russian and Austrian art.

All through the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Russian art could be seen in Vienna with relative frequency. There was an unprecedented flowering in art’s various fields, prompting contemporaries to dub this period the Silver Age. But this astonishing heyday of creativity was relatively short-lived and lasted only from the late 1890s to the latter years of the 1910s. Its exponents, however, considered it to be the next step in Russia’s artistic evolution, following the blossoming of literature in the Golden Age between 1810 and 1830.

During these years, when Russian literature was taking the West by storm – the novels by Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky were a worldwide triumph – this enthusiasm also swept across the borders of the Austro-Hungarian empire. “Russian artists followed the Vienna art scene and works by Gustav Klimt were published in Russian art magazines. And Austrian artists also knew the works by their Russian colleagues – in Gustav Klimt’s studio, for example, there was a majolica figure by Michail A. Vrubel,” Agnes Husslein-Arco, Director of the Belvedere, described the artistic exchange between the countries.

The new Russian art emerged in the works of the World of Art group, which had been established in St. Petersburg just two years before the Vienna Secession’s exhibition. In many respects, this bore close resemblances with the creative experiments by Austrian artists during this time.

“The Silver Age made an important contribution to Russian art, as it was in this period that Russians turned their attention to their own roots and traditions, after almost two hundred years of orienting themselves toward the West,” curator Konstantin Akinsha explained. “Russian Symbolism and the Mir Iskusstwa exhibitions were short-lived but their artistic legacies captured the essence of a time that defined a new worldview and constructed strong foundations for the avant-garde,” Belvedere Deputy Director and curator Alfred Weidinger added.

The Vienna Secession exhibitions in 1901 and 1908
In 1901 the Vienna Secession staged an exhibition featuring the work of key artists, such as Michail A. Vrubel, Konstantin A. Korovin, Nikolai K. Roerich, and Konstantin A. Somov, in a show designed by Josef Hoffmann. In contrast to the presentations from other countries, the Russian section also comprised impressive examples of applied art: majolica figures, vessels, and even an enormous fireplace from the workshops of Abramtsevo, where these arts were being fostered by the vibrant industrialist, railway builder and patron of the arts Savva Mamontov. For the first time, the Secession was introducing the Viennese public to Russian Symbolism and Russian arts and crafts, and this met with resounding approval in both public and private circles. Peter Altenberg praised the Russian paintings in his personal guide, which was published in the journal Ver Sacrum, and the respected Austrian collectors Gallia and Wärndorfer acquired exquisite watercolors by Konstantin A. Somov.

The second exhibition of Russian art in Vienna was presented in 1908 and was to be the largest show of foreign art ever staged at the Vienna Secession. It not only comprised works by established artists – Boris M. Kustodiev, Valentin A. Serov, and Léon S. Bakst, among others – but also impressive pieces by a new generation of Symbolist painters, including Sergei Y. Sudeikin, Nikolai N. Sapunov and other members of the Blue Rose group of artists. They were the last exponents of Russian Symbolism, which, in 1908, was already dwindling, soon to be replaced by the experiments of the avant-garde.

“In this sense, Vienna witnessed both the beginning and end of Russian Symbolism. The last exhibition of Russian art shown in Vienna was on the eve of the First World War and was dedicated to set designs by Léon S. Bakst,” curator Alfred Weidinger said. Elegant stage sets and costume designs for The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian by Claude Debussy and Gabriele D’Annunzio were shown at Salon Heller in the spring of 1914. Just a few months later the First World War broke out, and both fin-de-siècle Vienna and Russia’s Silver Age were brought to an abrupt end.

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June 28, 2014

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