Mikhail Vrubel: The Forefather of Russian Avant-Garde
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Capturing the moments of lucid sensibility that fuse with moments of darkness and distortion and representing some of the most significant and mysterious phenomenon of Russian art, the Russian painter, sculptor, and draftsman, Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel, is acclaimed as the greatest Russian Symbolist painter, who was a pioneer of Modernism with an original vision.
Remembered as the forefather of Russsian avant-garde, Vrubel was born on March 17, 1856, in Omsk, Russia, into the family of a military lawyer. Due to his father’s work in the army, the family had to move often. Mikhail studied in different cities such as Omsk, Astrakhan, St. Petersburg and Odessa.
He first began taking painting lessons in 1864, in Saratov. After completing his gymnasium studies in Odessa, he entered the Saint Petersburg University, specializing in law.
Following his graduation from the university, Vrubel served in the army, but his artistic nature could not bear a routine military job, so he entered the Russian Academy of Arts. Pavel Chistyakov, a virtuoso draftsman, was his teacher and greatest influence there. From him, Vrubel acquired an acute perception of form and its component.
From 1884 to 1889, Vrubel lived in Kiev (now Kyiv, Ukr.), where he studied and worked on the restoration of icons and frescos of St. Cyril’s Church and where he also painted a series of murals and icons. Vrubel’s next major project was to work on the murals of St. Vladimir’s Cathedral (1887), but the project went no farther than sketches, and another artist was given the assignment. This circumstance caused Vrubel to leave Kiev for Moscow, where he soon became one of the leading masters.
In 1891, Vrubel joined the artistic circle of Savva Mamontov, one of Moscow’s foremost art patrons. Mamontov’s circle had considerable interest in folk art and folklore. Under this influence, Vrubel painted a series of works based on themes from Russian folktales and legends, such as “Bogatyr” (1898) and “Pan” (1899). He also created some majolica statues. These works, with their bright folkloric decoration, combined with the aesthetic elements of Symbolist painting with the style of Art Nouveau, which was then taking root in Russian art.
During this period, Vrubel also created a series of illustrations for the books of the poet Mikhail Lermontov. He was especially drawn to Lermontov’s poem “Demon”. In these illustrations, Vrubel demonstrated his mastery of graphic arts. His dense strokes and his knack for breaking a form into a chaotic mass of facets and planes delighted many later artists, who saw him as the forerunner of Cubism.
The theme of Lermontov’s “Demon” became ubiquitous in Vrubel’s mature works, embodying his personal turmoil and endurance, and he created a cycle of works, including the haunting “Seated Demon”(1890), and “The Demon Cast Down” (1902), in which clear autobiographical motifs are manifest.
In 1896, Vrubel painted two decorative panels for the Nizhny Novgorod Fair- “Princess Reverie” and “Mikula”, but his paintings were rejected. From this point on, Vrubel experienced periodic mental disorder. In 1902, he suffered a major breakdown, and he spent the final eight years of life in mental institutions. In moments of sanity, he painted surprisingly beautiful and unusual works. One of these paintings, “The Pearl” (1904), is frequently cited as one of the most characteristic paintings of Russian Art Nouveau.
Mikhail Vrubel died on April 14, 1910, in a mental clinic, supposedly from tuberculosis. His biographers state that Vrubel deliberately caught cold, staying outside in freezing weather, and his death was virtual suicide.