Deconstructing Russian Imperialist Aesthetics: Repression, Resistance, and Representation in the Long Nineteenth Century

In Imperial Russia, as well as during the Soviet and post-Soviet periods, artists from across the empire (and later, the U.S.S.R.) were claimed by centralising state cultural policy as “Russian” with little or no acknowledgment of regional specificity. Yet many artists thus described were from colonised lands such as Poland, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Central Asia, and the Baltic States: they include, for example, such notable figures as Alexander Orlovsky, Ivan Aivazovsky, Marie Bashkirtseff, Alexandra Exter, Ilia Repin, Arkhip Kuindzhi, and Kazimir Malevich, to name but a few. While some artists reconciled local and imperial identities, others contested Russian nationalist hegemony. However, historians have often failed to recognise artists’ mixed ethnicities or the regionally embedded nature of their art, thus perpetuating a homogenizing Russo-centric narrative. Accordingly, the complexities and elisions of this imperial history require urgent reassessment, especially in light of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war.

Building on recent initiatives to de-centre and decolonise the study of Russian art, this panel invited papers which examine the ways in which artists questioned, challenged, and revised the imperial status quo. How did cultural practitioners negotiate and, at times, subvert the Russian state’s self-mythologizing, its oscillation between reform and repression, and its fraught relationships with both the East and the West? How might the separate art histories of nations such as Ukraine be productively decoupled from those of the imperial centre, while still acknowledging their historical entanglement? 

Session Conveners:  

Louise Hardiman, Independent Scholar, UK  

Maria Taroutina, Associate Professor of Art History, Yale-NUS College, Singapore 


Ekaterina Heath, University of Sydney, Australia 

Jennifer Milam, University of Newcastle, Australia 

 A ‘Russian Raphael’? Alexey Egorov and Kalmyk people in the Making of an Imperial Aesthetic  

Alexei Egorov (c1776-1851) was a painter, draftsman, and teacher in the Imperial Academy of the Arts. He was also Kalmyk, a Mongolic ethnic group from the Kalmyk Steppe bordering the northwest Caspian Sea between Russia and China. Born Kalmyk, raised Russian, trained in Russia and Italy, practised in European modes of painting and art making, Egorov is framed by art history as a ‘Russian Raphael’. This paper uses the example of Egorov to consider the use of national histories and cosmopolitan identities in the construction of an imperial aesthetic in late eighteenth-century Russia. It explores a range of images of Kalmyk people from the period, portrayed by Kalmyk, Russian, European, and Chinese artists to consider how aesthetics shaped cultural identity for borderland people during the visual making of empires and nation-states. 

In approaching this subject, we ask a range of questions: How do we disentangle a history of aesthetic imperialism from the portrayal of individuals, as artists and subjects? What aspects of Egorov’s history tie him to European art history, Russian art history, and the history of the Kalmyk people? Do we interrogate Egorov’s origins, his training, his sponsorship, his ‘Russian/Kalymk’ persona (which clearly attracted patronage in Rome), or his art works (which don’t seem to reveal any of these entanglements on the surface)? If we look only at his art, what do we miss? If we incorporate his biography, how do the related mythic associations contribute to the reception of his art? How is that relevant to a history of art? In asking these questions, our aim is to use the example of Egorov and his art making to deconstruct the Russian imperialist aesthetic that operated at the time of Catherine II, serving to connect Russia to Europe, while remaining a place apart. It depended on the annexation of places and people by creating a unified aesthetic that incorporated and reflected cultural sameness and differences. Focused on the historical relationship constructed between the Kalmyk people and their representation—not only in Russia, but also in Europe and China—we have uncovered a rich visual archive of material serving different agendas of empire. These artworks help us to understand how early modern Kalmyk people were seen as part of Russia, but also culturally distinct, retaining an identity that served the purpose of an imperialist aesthetic, which relies on the visual entanglement of repression and resistance in its conveyance of an agenda of empire that frames cultural identity as a cosmopolitan ideal.  

Alexandra Timonina, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy

Responding to the Northern Vogue. Fin-de-siècle Artists from the Russian Empire at the European Exhibitions

The paper will bring into discussion the expansion of the semantic field of ‘Russian North’ at the turn of the 20th century and illustrate how artists active in the country appropriated these motifs in their work. Next to the arctic or generally northern landscape (K. Korovin, V.Serov, V. Perepletchikov, A. Borisov), the emergence of ‘archaising’ elements evoking the atmosphere of northern lands and indigenous traditions (N. Roerich, I. Bilibin, V. Kandinsky) will be analysed as a direct reaction to revivalist attitudes spread in European culture of the time. It will explore how such tendencies, driven by nationalist stimuli, were reconciled in the careers of single artists, and validated by international exhibitions. This occurred not only within major events, such as the 1900 World Fair in Paris but also those relatively overlooked until recently, such as the ‘Russische Künstler’ [Russian artist] section at the Vienna Secession in 1901. The paper will argue that the references to the North, both in landscape and ‘archaising’ forms, were driven by the following factors: first, the practice of appropriation of folk and indigenous aesthetic being normalised in the modernist environment; second, the purposes of advertisement for ‘colonial’ investments in Russian Empire; and finally, it was fostered by the exhibitionary system in Europe that was strongly concerned with the idea of national identity. Even progressive secessionist groups hosted exhibitions dedicated to ‘national schools’, as it happened, for instance, with the ‘Russian sections’ at the Munich Secession in 1898 and in Vienna in 1901 where several artists showed works engaging with northern imagery

Galina Mardilovich,  Independent Scholar, USA 

Etching as a Different Kind of Resistance: Taras Shevchenko’s Prints 

In 1844 Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861) embarked on the series of prints A Picturesque Ukraine, which were to be produced in etching, a technique little practiced in Imperial Russia. With the series, Shevchenko aimed to raise awareness of Ukraine’s identity and culture. Despite intentions to issue more, the endeavor ended with only six prints before he was arrested and exiled for his writings. Surprisingly, on his release in 1857, Shevchenko was eager to return to etching, writing: “I imagine myself already a famous printmaker.” Within several years, he reproduced paintings including by Murillo and Rembrandt, and etched portraits of friends as well as several enigmatic self-portraits. His mastery of the technique was applauded with the Imperial Academy of Arts awarding him the title of Academician – the first such honor bestowed for etching by any official art institution in Europe. 

While now considered a symbol of Ukrainian independence, Shevchenko’s art and etchings in particular are understudied in part because they do not fit easily within his present image. Yet, his involvement with printmaking underscores the complex ways in which Shevchenko oscillated between different modes. This paper will center on how etching allowed Shevchenko to navigate his conflicting allegiances – from his homeland to his teacher Karl Briullov – and work through his multifarious cultural and artistic identities. It will briefly explore the implications of his prints, which remained an inspiration in subject matter and technique. Etching became the medium for subverting limitations set by the Imperial Russian art world. Beginning with Shevchenko, it also offered artists a means for self-assertion and self-determination. 

Emily Cox, Yale University, USA 

Fabergé’s Imperialism: Decorative Worlds and Utopian Dreams at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 

Peter-Carl Fabergé’s Trans-Siberian Railway Egg is a microcosm of imperial bravado. Its “surprise,” a golden wind-up train, loops around a map incised on the egg’s surface illustrating the eastern imperialism on which late nineteenth-century Russia staked its future. Borrowing techniques from Japanese netsuke, Fabergé’s works used materials extracted from across the Russian Empire, indexing the coeval rise of Russian militarism and decorative arts. Through its material make-up, the Trans-Siberian Railway Egg embodies Russia’s imperial ambitions at the close of the nineteenth century. Crafted during a period of heightened political tension with Japan and China, it was part of Fabergé’s display at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. There, its political import and emphasis on interactive play was echoed in the Panorama Transsibérien at the Trocadéro.  

From Fabergé’s display, fairgoers could not have missed one other globe whose size trumped all others: a cyclorama built on plans by anarchist geographer Élisée Reclus. Reclus was a vehement denouncer of Russia’s eastward expansion. Drawing upon his bioregionalist thought, the “Grand globe” was meant to liberate spectators from the nationalist and imperialist cartography on view below. This paper sets Fabergé’s miniature globe against Reclus’s monumental one, and asks: what were the stakes of such microcosmic imaginings – playful and political – at the turn of the century? In the global landscape of the Exposition Universelle of 1900, I argue that decorative art (on all scales) assumed an unexpected but critical role in materializing utopian and imperialist visions for the twentieth century. 

Laura Ryan,  Queen’s University, Canada 

Subverting orientalism and antisemitism? Imperial Russian cultural hybridity in Sonia Delaunay’s Yellow Nude (1908) 

In her debut Parisian exhibition, Sonia Delaunay-Terk offered Fauvist-inspired oil paintings to the multicultural viewing public of Montparnasse. Among these canvases, Yellow Nude (1908) stood out as the most ambitious, featuring an expressively coloured female figure atop a background of repeated, concentric diamonds. This pattern Orientalizes and exoticizes the nude, conforming to primitivizing depictions of women common to the western avant-garde. Spectators sharing Delaunay’s Imperial Russian upbringing would be more likely to recognize this design as that of a turn-of-the-century ikat textile with Central Asian, Jewish, and Ukrainian production histories. While much scholarship considers Delaunay’s Russian-Jewish heritage central both to her style and her self-presentation, Delaunay spent her childhood in Odessa, exposed to Jewish-Ukrainian culture distinct from that of affluent St. Petersburg, where she adolesced. Yellow Nude re-centers Delaunay’s Ukrainian upbringing through the ikat’s association with Jewish labour, the textile industry within The Pale of Settlement, and even the nude’s resultant embodiment of Ukrainian yellow and blue. During the nineteenth century, Russia imported these fabrics, expanded into these territories, and later came to copy ikat designs. The textile in Yellow Nude is most akin to a contemporaneous Russian woodblock printed reproduction of this Central Asian, woven, hand-dyed fabric, making Delaunay’s ikat as modern and culturally hybrid as the artist herself. Yellow Nude bespeaks Delaunay’s ambivalence toward western presentations of “eastern” women, her newfound exposure to the antisemitism spanning the imagined Orient/Occident divide, and her own struggle with the flattening of her identity to simply “Russian” following her emigration.  

Mira Kozhanova, University of Bamberg, Germany 

More than Russian: Paris-based Artists from the Western Territories of the Russian Empire, 1900–1914 

The paper offers a new perspective on the artists from the Russian Empire who left their homeland at the turn of the twentieth century to pursue an artistic career in Paris. A closer look at this early migratory flow reveals that it consisted predominantly of artists from the western territories of the empire, corresponding to present-day Belarus, Lithuania, Moldova, Poland, and Ukraine. Artists such as Alexander Archipenko, Naoum Aronson, Léon Bakst, Marc Chagall, Isaac Dobrinsky, Jacques Lipchitz, Mané-Katz, Marevna, Chana Orloff, Vladimir Polisadoff, Chaim Soutine, David Widhopff, or Ossip Zadkine represent a multinational, transcultural, multilingual, and religious diversity and yet are often reductively labeled as Russian in the Western European art historiographies. 

Acknowledging their diverse backgrounds, the paper examines how these artists related and even strategically used the notion of “Russian art,” in particular with regard to the expectations of the French public. At the same time, it highlights their efforts to question and challenge this notion through their oeuvre, exhibitions, or publications. Moreover, these differentiations are examined in the context of the artists’ canonization in Russia. While being excluded from the official art canon during the Soviet period, Russian art historiography of the last three decades reclaimed them as a “branch of Russian art” thus implying a joined tradition and continuity despite territorial separation. However, this approach ignores the fact that most of these artists were severely limited (or entirely excluded from the predominant cultural realm) already during the imperial period, and downplays the role of this discriminatory environment in their decision to relocate in the first place. By deconstructing these Russian imperialist claims of appropriation, the paper ultimately aims at contributing to a more nuanced perception of artists from the Russian Empire. 

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