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Vrubel’, Mikhail Aleksandrovich
Born Mar. 5 (17), 1856, in Omsk; died Apr. 1 (14), 1910, in St. Petersburg, Russian painter.
Vrubel’ studied at the St. Petersburg Academy of Art (1880-84) with P. P. Chistiakov. He traveled extensively in Italy and France and visited Germany, Greece, and Switzer-land. Following the tradition of A. A. Ivanov and N. N. Ge, Vrubel’ addressed himself in his art to problems of being, to moral and philosophical questions of good and evil, and to man’s place in the universe. Under the conditions of the complex and contradictory development of Russian artistic culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the desire to resolve these problems led Vrubel’, who stood apart from the social struggle of his time and who saw no real way of over-coming the acute contradictions of a bourgeois society, to a tormented search for a solution solely within man’s inner, spiritual life. This imbued his painting, as that of a number of other Russian artists of the period, with subjective, individualistic, and at times mystical and morbid qualities that provoked an enraged controversy about his work on various levels of Russian society. Vrubel’ turned to the romanticism of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to the myths of antiquity, and to Russian fairy tales; enigmatic, mysterious elements were often present in his work, as they were in early Russian symbolist poetry. The many-sidedness of his creativity as an expression of his dream of the unity of art with life, the search for a lofty monumental style and a national form of art, and the predilection for ornamental and rhythmically intricate solutions invested his works with the characteristic traits of the “modern” style. This is especially true of some of the panels (for example, the Faust triptych for A. V. Morozov’s house in Moscow, 1896, the Tret’iakov Gallery, and Morning, 1897, Russian Museum in Leningrad). However, his work has much more scope than either symbolism or modernism. The desire to create a complex picture of a universe in which everything is interrelated and animated and where the ordinary images of objects conceal an original and intense life resulted in the organic fusion of the world of human feelings and the world of nature (Pan, 1899; Toward Night, 1900; and Lilacs, 1900—all in the Tret’iakov Gallery).
During 1884-89, Vrubel’ lived in Kiev where he painted some icons and a number of murals for the Church of St. Cyril (including the composition above the gallery, The Descent of the Holy Spirit, oils, 1884), studies of murals for the St. Vladimir Cathedral, never executed (including four variants of the pieta, watercolors and graphite, Kiev Museum of Russian Art), the portrait, Girl Against the Background of a Persian Rug (1886, Kiev Museum of Russian Art). In his search for greater spirituality, monumentality, and plastic expressiveness, Vrubel’ sought enlightenment from classic art. However, he was remote from stylization or imitation. His characteristic manner, both as a painter and graphic artist, encompassed the decorative and keenly expressive Byzantine and ancient Russian art and the rich colors of Venetian painting. Vrubel’ used several means to express the anxious and dramatic apprehension of the universe that in many ways determines the individual nature of his art. His technique is characterized by sharp, broken strokes, several planes contrasted in representing an object; volume cut into a multitude of interrelated, intersecting facets and planes; broad, mosaic brushstrokes to model form; and fiery and emotional color combinations reminiscent of stained glass. (His style evolved into its final form at the beginning of the 1890’s.)
The contradiction, typical of his work of the Kiev period, between the dream of an artistic transformation of the world and the embodiment of what was lofty and excellent in man in grand and monumental images and the realities of a bourgeois society, prevented Vrubel’ from asserting his humanistic ideals through his art: his grand and monumental concepts were never carried out, for he limited himself to painting for the private residences of the bourgeoisie.
His leaning to monumental art is related to the decorative seekings that determined his style of the 1890’s, when Vrubel’ moved to Moscow (in late 1889) and entered the Abramtsevo art circle headed by the art patron S. I. Mamontov. During those years, Vrubel’ completed the following panels and paintings: Venice, 1893, Russian Museum: Spain, circa 1894; and Fortune Teller, 1895, both in the Tret’iakov Gallery. He participated in the preparation of stage productions (N. A. Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas Sadko, 1897, The Tsar’s Bride, 1899, and The Tale of Tsar Saltan, 1900, for the private Russian opera of S. I. Mamontov in Moscow. He made sketches of architectural details and some majolica sculpture for the Abramtsevo ceramic shop (The Egyptian, Mizgir’, and Kupava— all 1899-1900, in the Tret’iakov Gallery) and took on the roles of architect (a plan for the facade of S. I. Mamontov’s house on Sadovo-Spasskaia Street in Moscow, 1891) and master of applied art. During the same years, Vrubel’ worked on illustrations for the writings of M. lu. Lermontov (Izmail Bei, watercolor, white gouache, india ink, and sepia, at the Tret’iakov Gallery and the Museum of Literature in Moscow, and Hero of Our Times, water-color and white gouache, at the Tret’iakov Gallery—both 1890-91).
The main subject of his work during the Moscow period was the Demon. In bis Demon (1890, the Tret’iakov Gallery) and the illustrations to M. lu. Lermontov’s poem of the same name (watercolor, white gouache, 1890-91, the Tret’iakov Gallery, Russian Museum, and other collections), Vrubel’ symbolically posed the eternal questions of good and evil, putting forward his ideal of a heroic personality as he saw it—a rebel unwilling to accept the commonplace and unjust nature of reality, tragically alone. It was an age of difficult social contradictions and social discord, and it and the mutinous mood of the period preceding the revolution had an impact on this artist’s handling of the subject of the Demon, which culminated in The Fallen Demon (1902, the Tret’iakov Gallery). The unusual broken forms of The Fallen Demon emphasized his destruction and doom and also reflected the enormous inner tensions of the artist and his feverish search for an image of truly tragic power.
Vrubel’ painted a number of portraits marked by a philosophic depth of images and the striving to emphasize the unusual in the model (the portraits of S. I. Mamontov, 1897, K. D. Artsybashev, 1897, and N. I. Zabela-Vrubel’, 1898—all in the Tret’iakov Gallery; and the portrait of his son, watercolor, white gouache, and lead pencil, 1902, Russian Museum). In 1900, his art took the form of a tragic confession, with an increasingly dramatic outlook and expression of forms, at times showing signs of a morbid depression. (From 1902, Vrubel’ suffered from a severe mental illness, and in 1906 he became blind.) During these years, his best works were portraits in black and white, remarkable in their keen insight into character and clear-cut forms (portrait of F. A. Usol’tsev, pencil, 1904, private collection, Moscow; After the Concert: Portrait of N. I. Zabela-Vrubel’, pastel and charcoal, 1905; and portrait of V. la. Briusov, charcoal, red chalk, and chalk, 1906—both in the Tret’iakov Gallery). A human spirituality is also characteristic of the relatively few Vrubel’ landscapes (Tree by the Fence, lead pencil, 1903-04, Tret’iakov Gallery), and still lifes (Still Life: Candlestick, Carafe, and Glass, lead pencil, Russian Museum, Leningrad).
REFERENCESIaremich, S. P. M. A. Vrubel’. Moscow .
Ivanov, A. P. Vrubel’, 2nd ed. Petrograd, 1916.
M. A. Vrubel’: Vystavka proizvedenii (catalog). Moscow, 1957.
Vrubel’: Perepiska: Vospominaniia o khudozhnike. Preface by E. P. Gomberg-Verzhbinskaia. Leningrad-Moscow .
Vrubel’: Risunki k proizvedeniiam M. Iu. Lermontova. Edited and compiled by M. I. Flekel’. Text by A. A. Sidorov. Leningrad, 1964.
M. A. Vrubel’: 1856-1910. [Album. Introductory article, “Priroda i chelovek v iskusstve vrubelia,” by A. A. Fedorov-Davydov.] Moscow, 1968.
V. I. RAKITIN and V. M. PETIUSHENKO