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Between East and West

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Reconsidering Mikhail Vrubel’s “Nativist” Aesthetics

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Taking cue from Dmitry Sarabyanov’s seminal publications on the Stil Modern and turn-of-the-century Russian visual culture, the present article resituates Mikhail Vrubel’s œuvre “between East and West” by demonstrating that the artist moved beyond the narrowly circumscribed nationalist agenda typically attributed to the work he produced at the Abramtsevo and Talashkino artistic colonies. In addition to indigenous sources, Vrubel also assimilated a number of external artistic influences such as Jugendstil, medieval Gothic and Renaissance ceramics, Japanese and Chinese porcelain, and Egyptian and Assyrian art. Through a close analysis of Vrubel’s orientalist paintings, as well as his cycle of folkloric works such as Mikula Selyaninovich and the Volga (1896), I demonstrate that his aesthetic program crossed multiple boundaries: geographical, temporal, material, and institutional. Through a complex renegotiation of the global and the local, the past and the present, and the traditional and contemporary, Vrubel arrived at a strikingly modernist visual syntax, which paved the way for an entire generation of avant-garde artists such as Mikhail Larionov, Natalia Goncharova, Kazimir Malevich, Aleksandr Rodchenko, Liubov Popova, Vladimir Tatlin, and Naum Gabo, among others. Using Vrubel as a case study, this article thus proposes to rethink the opposing binary categories of avant-gardism and revivalism, historicism and innovation, Orientalism and Occidentalism, regionalism and cosmopolitanism, as they have been applied to the trajectory of modern Russian art—a set of ostensibly fixed dichotomies that Dmitry Sarabyanov had repeatedly and successfully challenged in his own work.

Affiliations: 1: Assistant Professor of Art History, Yale-NUS CollegeSingapore


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