On 12 April 1918 Vladimir Lenin signed a decree which became known as the Plan for Monumental Propaganda, which included a list of the world’s leading cultural figures, the memory of whom was to be perpetuated in revolutionary Russia. Among these names was Mikhail Vrubel.
Vrubel was a man of extremely versatile talent. He was renowned as a master of monumental murals, easel paintings and theatrical scenery, as a graphic artist, a sculptor and even as an architect. And in every sphere he produced first-class works. ‘Vrubel expressed his thoughts perfectly,’ wrote Alexander Golovin. ‘There was an unerring quality about everything he did.’
Even among the brilliant artists of the turn of the century Vrubel stands out because of the originality, uniqueness even, of his art. His originality of thought and novelty of form often prevented his work from being properly understood, and the sensitive artist was sorely wounded by the unjust criticism of some of his contemporaries. ‘What a long-suffering life he had,’ recalled Ilya Repin, ‘and yet, what pearls his genius produced.’
Vrubel was the son of a military lawyer in Omsk. His father had a benevolent attitude towards his enthusiasm for painting. During a short stay in St. Petersburg Vrubel attended the DrawingSchool and was a frequent visitor to the StateHermitageMuseum, Saint Petersburg. After leaving the grammar school in Odessa, where he had studied literature, history, German, French and Latin, Vrubel passed the entrance examinations for St. PetersburgUniversity, and in 1879 he graduated from the Law Faculty.
By this time the future artist had firmly decided to devote his life to art, and in 1880 he entered the Academy of Arts where he studied under Pavel Chistyakov. He was a keen, hardworking student. ‘You cannot imagine,’ he wrote to his sister, ‘how completely immersed I am in art: I just can’t take in any ideas that are unconnected with art.’
One of the best of Vrubel’s student works was the water-colour Mary’s Betrothal to Joseph (1881, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG). The composition recalls Raphael’s picture on the same subject, and one can also perceive the influence of Alexander Ivanov’s Biblical etudes, though both the compositional structure and movement of the figures is more dynamic.
In the autumn of 1883 Vrubel rented a studio for independent work. Here he painted the water-colour Girl in Renaissance Surroundings (State Museum of Russian Art, Kiev) which demonstrated his ability to convey a wide variety of material forms and shades of colour.
While still at the Academy of Arts, Vrubel began to take an interest in universal, philosophical subjects, and he was attracted to strong, rebellious, often tragic individuals. Symptomatically, his first oil-painting was based on Shakespeare: Hamlet and Ophelia (1884, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG).
In April 1884 Vrubel left the Academy and took up the offer of the well-known art critic A. Prakhov to go to Kiev and help restore the ancient murals of St. Cyril’s Church. Vrubel restored 150 fragments of frescos and produced four new compositions where the originals were lost. Apart from the frescos he also painted four icons. On these he worked in Venice, where he went to study early Renaissance art. The best of the icons—The Mother of God (1885, State Museum of Russian Art, Kiev)—is a tender but sad, womanly image of a mother who has a presentiment of her son’s tragic fate.
The finest achievement of Vrubel’s Kiev period, however, was his water-colour studies for murals in St. Vladimir’s Cathedral (1887, State Museum of Russian Art, Kiev). By working in St. Cyril’s Church and studying the frescos of St. Sophia’s Cathedral, the artist came to understand the essence of the great monumental art of ancient Rus, and the Vladimir studies clearly show the link between Vrubel’s work and the ancient heritage, which suited both his talent and his frame of mind. They include the noble Resurrection, the radiant Angel with Censer and
Candle and, finally, the shattering, tragic Mourning. In this last work, Mary stands with wide, tearful eyes, overwhelmed by suffering, over her son’s grave. The extent of her sorrow is brought out by the solemn rhythm of the folds in her clothes, by the severe lines, the simplicity of the colour relations and the laconic composition. In Mourning—an altogether unique work in world art—Vrubel successfully brought together the harmony and monumental stature of early art, and an expression of the feelings of contemporary man.
Vrubel did not manage to turn these studies into actual murals; his part in the decoration of the Cathedral was limited to producing some fanciful ornaments, but this too he did with great enthusiasm and imagination. In the words of the artist Nesterov, Vrubel was ‘innocently absent from our planet, wrapped up in his visions ; and these visions, when they visited him, were not his guests for long, but gave place to new dreams and new images, hitherto unheard- of, unexpected and unconjectured—the wonderful fantasies of a marvellous artist from another world’.
In 1889 Vrubel left Kiev for Moscow, and this was the start of his most fruitful period. He received several commissions for decorative panels, one of which—Venice (1893, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG)—embodied his impressions of a trip to Italy in 1891- 92. The Renaissance city is shown in all the magnificence of a splendid carnival procession.
The subject of the picture entitled Spain (1894, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) may be connected with the opera Carmen, which Vrubel loved and considered an epoch-making piece of music. The agitation of the characters, the intensity of the colours and the flood of scorching sunlight arouse a sense of conflict and drama; we see a country which is full of life, where emotions bubble and both love and hate are strong. In a somewhat similar vein is The Fortune-Teller (1895, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW), a deeply psychological work. Vrubel brilliantly highlights the face, against the lilac and rose-coloured sheen of the carpet and silks. The fortune-teller’s eyes stare fixedly, as though she has divined some terrible secret of the future.
In this period Vrubel painted many portraits, constantly employing new devices. In his portrait of the writer K. Artsybushev (1897, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) there is a sense of calm and balance; the contrasts of compositional rhythms, details and colour in his portrait of Savva Mamontov (1897, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) make for a poignant image in which the titanic borders on the helpless.
Vrubel’s love of music led him to Mamontov’s private opera house, where he met Rimsky- Korsakov and designed productions of his operas The Tsar’s Bride and The Tale of the Tsar Saltan. Of the architectural projects in which he was then engaged, only one was realised—an annexe to Mamontov’s house in Moscow. At Abramtsevo Vrubel ran the ceramics workshop and produced a series of unusual majolica sculptures on fairy-tale subjects.
Abramtsevo stimulated many of Vrubel’s artistic searchings. Here he developed an interest in national traditions and folk art. In a letter to his sister, he says: ‘I am at Abramtsevo at the moment and again I can feel, or rather, hear that intimate national note which I would so love to capture on canvas or in an ornament. It is the music of an integrated man, not fractured by the abstractions of the regulated, differentiated, pale West.’
Vrubel found the ‘music of an integrated man’ in Russian folklore, which he treated again and again in his work of the nineties. It was not a case of illustrating particular epic tales and fairy stories, however; the artist strove to understand the conception which his forefathers had of man and nature, to look at the world through their eyes.
Vrubel’s Bogatyr (1898, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG) is born of surrounding nature, which gives the Herculean figure grandeur and might.
In the picture Fan (1899, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) the Greek god is transformed into a Russian wood-demon. Old and wrinkled, with fathomless blue eyes and gnarled fingers, he almost seems to grow out of the moss-grown tree-stump. Fantastic, bewitching shades are used for the typical Russian landscape—expansive wet meadows, a meandering stream, slender birches caught in the silence of the falling twilight and tinged by the glow of the horned moon. A harmonious combination of the fantastic and the real can also be seen in The Swan Princess (1900, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW). The composition is so constructed as to give the impression of glancing into a fairy-tale world where a magic swan-maiden has just appeared and is about to disappear again, floating away towards a distant mysterious shore. The last beams of sunshine play on her snowy white feathers, producing a rainbow of colours. The maiden is turning, her delicate face looks sad, and there is a mysterious mixture of melancholy and loneliness in her eyes. The Swan Princess is one of Vrubel’s most enticing and heartfelt feminine images.
The artist’s fervent love of nature helped him to convey its beauty. The luxuriant clusters of lilac in the painting Lilac (1900, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) are alive and fragrant in the starlit night. One of Vrubel’s contemporaries wrote that nature blinded him (the artist did indeed go blind near the end of his life) because he looked too closely at its secrets.
Throughout the nineties Vrubel worked on the image of the Demon. In a letter to his father the artist expressed his conception of the Demon : ‘The Demon is not so much an evil spirit as a suffering, sorrowful one, and at the same time an imperious, majestic one.’ His first attempt to treat the subject was in 1885, but the artist destroyed this work.
In the picture Seated Demon (1890, TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW) the young Titan is depicted on a clifftop in the sunset. His fine, powerful body, seems almost too big for the picture; he wrings his hands; his face is touchingly handsome; and his eyes express inhuman sorrow. Vrubel’s Demon is a union of opposites: beauty, majesty, strength, and constraint, helplessness and yearning. He is surrounded by a fabulous, beautiful, yet petrified and cold world. The picture’s colouring is also full of contrasts: a cold lilac is in ‘combat’ with a warm golden-orange. The rocks, the flowers and the figure are painted in a peculiar Vrube- lesque manner: the artist seems to hew the shapes from a block, creating an impression of a world composed of precious stones. There is a sense of primordiality about the picture.
While thinking in fantastic imagery, Vrubel was firmly rooted in reality, and his Demon was profoundly modern, reflecting not only the artist’s personal emotional states but also the age itself with its contrasts and contradictions. As the poet Alexander Blok wrote, ‘Vrubel’s Demon is a symbol of our times, neither night nor day, neither dark nor light.’
In 1891 Vrubel did the illustrations for a jubilee edition of Mikhail Lermontov’s works, edited by Konchalovsky. Of thirty illustrations half refer to Lermontov’s Demon. In fact, these are all works of art in their own right, important in the history of Russian book illustrations, and demonstrate Vrubel’s profound comprehension of Lermontov’s poetry. Particularly noteworthy is the monumental water-colour Head of the Demon. Against a background of stony, snow-covered mountain-tops is a close-up head, with black hair and a pale face: the lips are parched, the eyes burning and penetrating ; this gaze is full of unbearable torment, it expresses a thirst for knowledge and freedom, the rebellious spirit of doubt.
Some years later Vrubel painted Flying Demon (1899, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG)—a sombre picture, full of a foreboding of ruin and doom.
Finally, in 1901-02, appeared the last picture, The Demon Prostrated, on wich Vrubel worked intensively and painstakingly. Alexander Be- nois recalled that the painting already appeared at the ‘World of Art’ exhibition of 1902, but Vrubel continued to work on the face of the Demon, altering the colouring.
The broken, deformed body of the Demon, his wings fractured, is flung out in a gorge, and his eyes burn with fury. It is dusk and the last sunray flashes on the Demon’s crown and on the mountain-tops. The spirit of rebellion is overthrown, but not crushed.
At the time people saw the element of protest, a symbol of beautiful, unsubdued man in this image. Remember the words of Alexander Blok:
What of moments of powerlessness!
Time is a gossamer haze!
We shall unfurl our wings once more,
And again we shall take to the skies!…
And Chaliapin said, somewhat later: ‘What Demons he painted!—strong, terrible, dreadful and irresistible… My Demon comes from Vrubel.’
Shortly after finishing his Demon Prostrated, Mikhail Vrubel fell seriously ill and was admitted to hospital. His illness lasted almost continuously until 1904, when he made a short-lived recovery.
In 1904 he went to St. Petersburg. Now the last period in his work began.
That year Vrubel painted Six- Winged Seraph, which is linked thematically with Pushkin’s poem The Prophet. To some extent, the mighty angel with his shining opalescent plumage continues the theme of the Demon, but this image is integrated and harmonious.
In 1904 Vrubel painted one of his most tender, fragile images—Portrait of N. Zabela with Birch-Trees (RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG). It was also at this time that his interesting self-portraits were painted.
From 1905 onwards the artist was confined to hospital, but he carried on working, proving to be a marvellous graphic-artist. He drew various hospital scenes, portraits of doctors and landscapes. His drawings show a variety of styles, and are keenly perceptive and full of emotional power. Doctor Usoltsev, who was treating Vrubel, wrote: ‘He was a creative artist through, in every recess of his psyche. He created constantly, and creation was for him as easy and as necessary as breathing. So long as a man lives, he breathes; so long as Vrubel breathed, he created.’
A few years before his death Vrubel began painting a portrait of the poet Valery Bryusov (1906, RUSSIAN MUSEUM, SAINT PETERSBURG). Bryusov later wrote that he tried all his life to resemble that portrait. But Vrubel never completed the work; in 1906 he went blind. It was a tragic blow, and in the heavy hospital atmosphere the artist dreamt of the blue of the sky over dark fields and of the colours of spring. His love of music was his only consolation. Vrubel died on 1 April 1910.
The work of this artist was a heartfelt protest against evil. Even his tragic images contain a bright, noble element. The struggle of light and darkness—such is the content of most of Vrubel’s works. Alexander Blok spoke of this eloquently at the artist’s grave: ‘Vrubel came to us as a messenger to tell us that the violet night is sprinkled with the gold of a clear evening. He left us his Demons to exorcise the violet evil and the night. What Vrubel and those like him reveal to mankind once a century, make me tremble with awe.’