By Robin Milner-Gulland

Reaktion Books. 237 pages. £25. ISBN 978-1-78914-225-9

Reviewed by Jim Burns

What do we know about Russia? I don’t mean the Russia presented to us by politicians and political commentators, with their emphasis on its current difficulties and its supposed, and perhaps real, threat to our lives and liberties. I’m thinking more in terms of Russian history, its traditions, and the vastness of a country that encompasses millions of people from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of beliefs and interests.

The complicated beginnings of what became known as Russia are outlined by Robin Milner-Gulland in a brisk, informative manner. There were shifts of power with leaders rising and falling and, at one time or another, “the Russian metropolitan seat” was located in Kiev, Vladimir, and then Moscow in 1321. St. Petersburg as a centre of culture and political power came later. It’s worth noting this because it indicates how, under Peter the Great’s direction, influences from the West began to play a relevant part in shaping Russia. But, as is made clear by Milner-Gulland, at the same time “the Russian Church became all the more significant as an all-Russian unifying force, enhanced by reinvigorated monasticism”.

Discussing “Art and Artists of Old Russia” he points out that artists, as we think of them, “did not, strictly speaking, exist”. There was plenty of art around, but it was primarily related to religion. And it didn’t occur to people to think of it as art until the seventeenth century. Before that, `art’ “as a generality meant nothing and could not have done……An `artist’, too, could only have been perceived as a craftsman in one or another trade who carried out a specific task to the satisfaction of those by whom it was required”. Icons were of key importance in this respect and Milner-Gulland devotes a fair amount of space to discussing them and what their uses were. We may now look at them as art, but in their day they often had more practical applications: “Simple people might treat them as if alive: blaming, even punishing them if the result of prayers did not live up to expectations”.

What had become established in the West – portraiture and landscapes – arrived in Russia relatively late, and Milner-Gulland states that: “Post-Renaissance linear perspective did not affect Russian art (even on a sophisticated, let alone folk level) until the mid-seventeenth century, and even then only tentatively”. But artists from outside began to work in Russia, and Peter the Great encouraged young would-be artists to go to Italy, for example, to study painting and sculpture: “It all worked well, with early eighteenth-century Russian artists (for example, the Nikitin brothers) speedy at adopting European techniques”. There is a painting reproduced in the book – “In the Ploughing Field, Spring” by Aleksey Venetsianov – which shows how, by the early nineteenth-century, European influences had been absorbed, in more ways than one. The tranquil and idealised scene of peasant life was clearly designed to appeal to stratas of society that were financially and socially comfortable and did not want to be reminded of the true realities of agricultural labour.

When Milner-Gulland moves into the nineteenth-century, and what he refers to as “art for galleries, and not living rooms,“  I was reminded of an exhibition at the Russian Museum in Málaga some years ago.  If memory serves me right, it was called The Four Seasons and tracked them through mostly nineteenth-century paintings. Many of them were large, and impressive in their realisation. Milner-Gulland mentions Ivan Shishkin who was accorded the perhaps back-handed compliment of being described as “the accountant of leaves” because of the precision of his paintings. Another artist, Isaac Levitan, is said to have produced canvases in which “nothing is fugitive”, with his “poeticization of apparently unremarkable themes often compared with the literary methods of his lifelong friend (if occasional enemy) Anton Chekhov”. Levitan’s “The Vladimir Road” is reproduced in Patterns of Russia”, and shows “the first stage of convicts’ journeys to Siberian exile”. I recall seeing this painting in an exhibition at the National Gallery some years ago, and being struck by the way in which the seemingly sparse landscape captures the endless and empty futures awaiting the prisoners.

The reference to Levitan sent me hunting for a book, The Itinerants, published in Leningrad in 1974, which focused on the painters who came together in the Association of Itinerant Artists and exhibited their work in St. Petersburg, Moscow, and various provincial towns and cities. Milner-Gulland describes them as a “motive force for the so-called Socialist-Realist method of artistic production and propagation from the Soviet 1930s onwards; incidentally it is noteworthy to this day how many Russian provincial capitals have remarkable art museums”.

It’s said,  by Milner-Gulland, that the tradition of “the Russian artists’ conquest (or portrait) of land and landscape…..continued with a mild and belated, if competent, version of Impressionism much appreciated in the Soviet Union”. I wondered about the comment regarding Impressionism being “much appreciated in the Soviet Union”, an idea having been implanted In my mind somewhere along the way that it was largely a decadent, bourgeois form which was frowned on by the authorities. As a result, Impressionist art tended to be hidden in the storage spaces of museums or was secretly in private hands. But then I looked at the aforementioned book about the Itinerants alongside the catalogue for the exhibition of Russian Impressionism due to be held in Potsdam and Baden-Baden in 2020/2021. I’m not sure if it was affected by the Covid crisis.

What is obvious is that some of the artists in The Itinerants can also be seen as Impressionists. From this point of view I’ve long had a notion that “impressionism” is now something of a catch-all term widely applied to many late-nineteenth century paintings. There were a few original Impressionists, but lots of artists who looked at Monet and others and took away some aspects of their work. So, there can be a fairly clear relationship between the paintings by Isaac Levitan, Ilya Repin, and Vasily Polenov, to name three,  that are featured in both books. They had all spent time in Paris. And Valentine Serov’s “By the Window”, in the Russian Impressionists catalogue, would not have seemed out-of-place in the book about the Itinerants.

When Milner-Gulland turns his attention to St. Petersburg (also called Petrograd and Leningrad, at various times), he provides an account of the establishment of the city, and its place in Russian history with regard to politics and culture. As a construct of the eighteenth-century it wasn’t as established as Moscow, and there was always a certain amount of tension between the two cities. And St. Petersburg always had an eye on Europe. Milner-Gulland stresses the cultural importance of the city, where Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman” exerted its influence, Andrey Beliy’s vast novel, Petersburg, was set, and poets like Alexander Blok, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Anna Akhmatova performed at the Stray Dog Cabaret before the First World War.

Patterns of Russia is a stimulating book with much to recommend it in terms of information and ideas. I’m conscious of having only given a broad indication of its values, and I admit to having indulged myself by looking closer at Russian art than other aspects of the country’s history, culture, and spaces. But Robin Milner-Gulland makes them all worthy of attention.