Russian Painting


Year 988.  Russia converted to Christianity and until the start of the 18th century Russian painting was almost all religious. The legendary historical account says that Christianity, as it was practiced in Byzantine, was selected because of the beauty that surrounded the religious ceremony – which were cathedrals with their paintings.


Our Lady Of Vladimir is one of the oldest icons in Russia.  It is believed to have been brought to Kiev Rus form Constantinople, and later in 1155 from Kiev to the city of Vladimir.  Painted by an unknown artist, it has images on both sides.


Through the centuries icon painting repeat the same motives. Russian medieval culture was based on tradition. The creation of new images was usually not thought of, which meant that there was almost no attempt to be original. Very few painters were allowed to make their own images that were later copied by other icon painters.

The belief was that an icon painter only makes visible the truth which already exists. The painter was not creating a new image but reinterpreting the old one, or discovering what already exists in eternity. Through his moral standing the role of an icon painter was to be a voice through which eternal truths were revealed to the world.

Icons were painted on a wooden panel with egg tempera, where egg yolk was the binder. Facial features were painted first in reddish ochre over the dark brown background, then with lighter brown and, finally, lighter areas and highlights were added with ochre mixed with white lead or with pure white lead. Russian icon painters called the background of an icon the ‘light’. Light was symbolized by gold leaf, ochre, red or silver. Prevailing colors used for the image were red, gold, and light green.  Gold was often described as being red in color and in the old Russian language the word red also meant beautiful.


All saints had their own specific features. People knew how each saint looked because of how they were represented on all icons.

The painting of icons was standardized and mechanical reproduction was performed by means of tracings.  Such tracings were made by piercing with soot which transferred the main lines of the drawing to the damp gesso of another icon.  Stencils often had indications of the colors to be used on different parts.

As the human hand went over the mechanical copy the differences to Byzantine original types were introduced and over time icons took on national flavor in depiction of heads, faces and costumes and, finally, a new spiritual content was expressed.


Above we see the princes Boris and Gleb. They were younger sons of Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev (who introduced Christianity to Russia). Soon after Vladimir’s death in 1015, Boris and Gleb were cruelly murdered by their older brother Svyatopolk. Boris and Gleb’s life story was compiled in the late 11th and early 12th century and the first icons were painted in the 14th century.

Boris and Gleb are always depicted together wearing Russian dress of the period. They are standing in the light and in a very shallow space.


In icons everything exists in the light and in inverted perspective (lines do not converge into a single point at the horizon, like in linear perspective). Objects further away from us get wider and lines are kept parallel to each other.


In the above icon we see a book turned towards us so that we can read what Ioan Bogoslov is reading.


Medieval artist painted from memory. Here we see a church with five cupolas depicted in a single line. It was more important to show that cathedral has five cupolas then how it is seen in real life. Another feature of this image is that we see the cathedral outside and what is happening inside at the same time, since the artist removed the front wall.


Medieval people believed in the existence of the fourth dimension – a world that exists simultaneously with ours but on the 4th perpendicular to the three known to us. These two worlds were depicted simultaneously on an icon.  And this is the world where angels and god live.

However, this mystical space was not visible to profane people depicted in the same icon, as they were depicted as being in the real world. The border between the two worlds was symbolized by a red line, row of angels, or clouds.  Events in the other world were painted on blue, bright red or burgundy colored background.

In the above image we see the virgin simultaneously in two spaces, three different time periods. In our space, in the mystical world at the moment she passes away, and at the top when she is already in the mystical world.


In the above narrative icon we see an event which happened in 1169. It was passed down in time orally until the end of the 14th century when it was finally depicted on an icon.

In 1169 troops led by the prince of Suzdal attacked the city of Novgorod. The Suzdal army was defeated. The people of Novgorod attributed their victory to the powers of the miraculous icon The Sign of Our Lady.

As cult objects, icons were often carried in various religious processions and at the time of war icons were often brought to the walls of the city. It was believed that a miraculous icon could stop the enemy from entering the city.

The event unfolds from top to bottom. In the upper portion we see Novgorodians praying before the icon The Sign of Our Lady and then they carry the icon to the church of Saint Sofia. In the middle we see negotiations and military action where the Suzdal warriors shoot arrows and the icon at the top of the city walls shields the Novgorodians. In the lower part Novogorod troops leave the fortress led by the saints Boris and Gleb with archangel Michael, and to the right are defeated Suzdal troops.


Here we see a plan / diagram of the city.  The ground is depicted from above and buildings from the side.


Icons were not only used in churches but also in domestic environments.  This is a photograph of a red corner in peasant’s house where icons were usually displayed.

Being cult objects, icons were constantly in use requiring cleaning and repainting. This practice stopped considerably at the beginning of the 18th century when Peter the Great opened the ‘window to Europe’ and Russia was Europeanized. As a result many icons were lost. Additionally in the 1700’s Italian architects and artists were invited to work in Russia and Russian peasants were sent to Italy to learn European painting. This added to the demise of old Russian icon painting.

In the middle of the 19th century the search for Russian and Christian antiques as well as folklore began to develop. In 1846 the Russian Archeological society was formed in St. Petersburg. At the beginning of the 20th century, before the revolution, many Russian artists gained interest in old Russian traditions, ethnography, folklore and borrowed from them.


Above you can see a Lubok print. They were usually woodcut printed in b/w and hand colored. These cheap prints were sold during carnivals and fairs and typically found displayed in peasant homes.


Ethnographic image: a Shaman with his drum.

What relates these three (icon, lubok, ethnographic imagery) different systems of representation  is the flatness of pictorial space and diagrammatic representation. Usually all characters and ornamentation have their own meaning and the images could be read as texts.

Wassily Kandinsky, the first artist to paint purely abstract images, was interested in ethnography and went into ethnographic exhibitions in remote areas in Russia. According to Kandinsky abstract forms ‘have no material interpretation.’


Kandinsky believed that art belongs to spiritual life.  In his two theoretical books (Point and Line to Plane, and Concerning the Spiritual in Art) he identified basic elements “without which a work in any particular art cannot even come into existence.” The first element is the point – “the innermost concise form”, next is the line which is – “the track made by the moving point” and is created by movement.  A line has the power to create a plane. And the third element is a basic plane – the material plane which receives the work of art.

Color according to Kandinsky “is a power which directly influences the soul. Color is the keyboard, the eyes are the hammers, the soul is the piano with many strings. The artist is the hand which plays, touching one key or another, to cause vibrations in the soul.”


Kandinsky wanted his paintings to affect a viewer as a piece of music would.  Kandinsky felt that the true work of art “resonated like a musical instrument.”

“A painter, who finds no satisfaction in mere representation, however artistic, in his longing to express his inner life, cannot but envy the ease with which music, the most non-material of the arts today, achieves this end. He naturally seeks to apply the methods of music to his own art. And from this results the modern desire for rhythm in painting, for mathematical, abstract construction, for repeated notes of color, for setting color in motion.”

Kandinsky was interested in a radical break with the past. (The whole country was going through such a transition.) He was against reviving art-principles of the past, since they would “at best produce an art that is still-born,” and “it is impossible to live and feel, as did the ancient Greeks.’ In his opinion ‘the primitive phase, through which we are now passing, with its similarity of form, can only be of short duration.”


Like Kandinsky, Malevich was against repeating the past. In his opinion “we must search forms, representative of contemporary life.” Kazimir Malevich saw development of modern art and his painting through Cubism, Futurism to Suprematism and in 1915 he expressed his views in the article From Cubism and Futurism to Suprematism.

For Malevich: “To create means to live, perpetually to create new and newer.” “An artist can be a creator when forms in his painting has nothing in common with nature, existing forms.” “Art – ability to create construction … on principles of weight, speed and direction of movement.” “New painterly realism is truly painterly because it has no realism of mountains, sky, water… .”


Malevich was against the resurrection of “the dead old Russian style.” In his views “we live in time of dynamic speed” and “it would be wrong to dress it into an old Russian dress.” “Neither can one count as creation those pictures where there is the exaggeration of real forms, but also copies of nature: icons, Giotto, Gauguin, etc.” “Blue light of the sky is bitten by the suprematist system, it entered into white as real representation of boundless space and therefore it is free from background color of the sky.”


Suprematist Painting


Image from December 1915 – January 1916, exhibition Suprematism at 0.10 The last futurist exhibition of paintings.

Malevich called his square – “face of the new art,”  which is a creation of pure form. It is looking into the future negating the past.

If art is the profanation of the sacral, then what died is the sacral. Russian avant-guard was the profanation of the sacral, and creation of a sacral in the form of a new world / new attitude / new world-feeling.