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Band of Early Russian Painters Gets Its Due

The Itinerants: The Masters of Russian Realism

By Elena Nesterova

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255 pp., $55

It always comes as a surprise that the first art of revolutionary Russia was tenaciously experimental.

Painters and sculptors like Alexander Rodchenko, Varvara Stepanova, and Vladimir Tatlin embraced the idea that art should serve the needs of the state. Since they associated communism with a new vision, they enthusiastically turned to abstract art as a way to express a fresh future. They snickered at realistic representation, which they held to be the disagreeable residue of the corrupt past.

The experiments of the early Soviet artists still inspire contemporary international art and design. Indeed, the continuing influence of this brief historic moment is so vast that it overshadows the other Russian art, the populist realism of painters known collectively as the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions.

Elena Nesterova's profusely illustrated text, "The Itinerants: The Masters of Russian Realism," attempts to amend the situation by revealing the varieties of Russian Realism from the late 19th century to the early years of the Russian Revolution.

Like many European painters, the so-called Itinerants adopted realistic depiction in the middle years of the 19th century. With photographic detail and clarity, they delineated scenes from the everyday life of the middle class, a segment of society that was emerging as a prominent patron of the arts.

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Teetering between sentiment and insight, these paintings dwelled on domestic life rather than grand historical events. Scenes of romance and weddings were highly favored.

Occasionally melodrama gave way to stinging social comment, as in Nikolai Nevrev's "Bargaining: A Daily Life Scene From the Serfdom Era" (1866). Until 1861, Russian landlords had the right to buy and sell serfs. The painting depicts the indifference of a landowner who has lost a female serf in a card game.

During the 1870s, when the Society for Itinerant Art Exhibitions was formally founded, realist painters enlarged their purview. They moved away from mawkish narrative to genre scenes that rendered life throughout Russia. The drudgery and the consolations of peasant life occupy a significant place in this surge of Itinerant painting.

At the same time, the Itinerant artists developed a philosophy of art that attempted to break away from French influences and move toward a distinctly Russian approach. Nevertheless, elements of French Impressionism seeped into Russian Realism. Ilya Repin, the best-known painter outside of Russia, infused Impressionist light into Russian scenes like "A Religious Procession" in Kursk Province (1883).

Portraiture remains the most intriguing type of Itinerant painting. These painters depicted themselves and other artists in works that were more unsparing than those done for patrons. For example, Repin's 1881 portrait of composer Modest Mussorgsky catches both the concentration and the sensitivity of the musician.

The Russian countryside comes alive in Itinerant landscape painting. Ivan Shishkin's panoramic picture of "Rye" (1878) is a patriotic narrative in which the heavy heads of grain bow before towering ancient fir trees, symbols of the Russian past. Closely observed snow scenes, particularly those by Isaac Levitan, cleverly render delightful optical effects like white on white, and blue shadows.

The mood to depict all things Russian also focused on Russian history. These paintings also dwelled on cases of injustice and heartache. Vasily Surikov's "The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy" (1878-81) depicts a 17th-century national drama in which the streltsy, or fusiliers, prepare to accept an undeserved death sentence rather than compromise their values.

During the last decades of the 19th century, Itinerant painters became more attuned to the suffering of industrial workers. They visited miners to show the hardships of their daily lives. Depictions of stevedores, railway builders, and laundresses all emphasize the inner, spiritual strength of manual laborers.

Likely enough, increased concern for injustice spurred interest in religious painting. Several painters portrayed New Testament scenes in which the humanity and sacrifice of Jesus were emphasized. The drive toward realistic depiction coupled with religious fervor persuaded Vasily Polenov to travel to Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. There he recorded geographic and ethnographic observations that he later used in his dramatic 1887 painting, "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery" (1887).

Despite deep political and artistic rifts, the Society persisted throughout World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917. They held one last show in 1923, at the height of state-approved experimental and abstract art.

Ironically, in the months to come, avant-garde art would be denounced by the Soviets and replaced by social realism. The photographic realism of the Itinerants would be reborn and channeled into propaganda pictures of hardy peasants agog at a new tractor or singing songs while bringing in record wheat harvests.

Unfortunately, Nesterova does not offer an account of the cultural politics of this highly charged historical period. Did the Itinerants help to produce propaganda pictures, or were they also denounced by the Soviets for having middle-class leanings? These questions aside, Nesterova's book does great service in restoring the panoply of Russian art before the Revolution.

* Mary Warner Marien teaches art history at Syracuse (N.Y.) University.

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