Here's an interesting paper I threw together one morning for a class about Modernism in Russian art. The assignment we were given was:
Write a 3-4 page essay on...
The poem "The Russian Mind" by Viacheslav Ivanov and the painting "Russian Woman in a Landscape" by Vasily Kandinsky both represent attempts to present the specific nature of Russianness. Compare and contrast these two works from the perspective of Russian nationalism.

And here's what about three hours of work that morning produced.

Nationalism in Kandinsky's "Russian Woman in a Landscape" and Ivanov's "The Russian Mind"

copyright 19 October 2001 by Mike Lietz

Nationalism represents for art of all types a powerful inspiration and muse not only inspiring the artist but also able to profoundly move the audience of the artwork. At times a celebratory patriotism to be proclaimed and embraced, the hurrahs of nationalism are matched with the history it necessarily embodies and reflects upon. Both Vasily Kandinsky and Viacheslav Ivanov present aspects of Russian nationalism around the beginning of the twentieth century in poetry and painting. The Russia of that time was a dynamic nation, in the throes of the Westernization put into motion by Peter the Great while witness to the end of the leadership of his descendant Nicholas II. Few areas remained constant on a day to day basis, with governments and political ideologies changing more often than the oft-harsh weather. The promises of Revolution, political and social, and the long-endured hardships that brought it about led to a strong sentiment of nationalism for all of Russia, a sense of which each of the artists tries to capture in the works discussed here.

Vasily Kandinsky depicts a sad figure on a downcast day at the center of his 1906 painting "Russian Woman in a Landscape". Seeing the woman evokes her sadness on the viewer: her melancholy is too powerful not to be shared. She is alone but not quite lonely, joined not by the colorfully garbed people near the house on the hill, but only by her viewer. Though contemplative, she looks neither defeated nor shameful, but possesses a visible strength evident in her determined stare and upright posture. Through her powerful presence, the viewer is gradually drawn deeper into the painting, first to her (the true focal point), then to her ornate but not ostentatious gown and veil, then to the tree stump and the ground around her feet. The patchwork grass leads away from the pale woman, up a tree-lined hill and to a colorfully decorated building with bright silhouettes of people entering or exiting. Beyond them lie the distant sea and the cloudy, dusky sky above, framing the green landscape with a blue backdrop. Between the sky and the woman lies a portrait not only of not just one person's lonely spirituality but of the characteristics of all her kindred Russians, displaying clearly the gloomy mind and sober contemplation through the mystic night mentioned by Viacheslav Ivanov in his 1890 poem "The Russian Mind".

Ivanov envisions his Russian from two viewpoints. For one he addresses the solitude and sorrow of the Russian mind, but at the same time he embraces the positive, upbeat and defiant attributes and attitudes of the "willful and avid" Russian. Ivanov's Russian mind is at the same time gloomy and happy, unrestrainable while immersed in sober contemplation. Navigating as though a vessel sailing through the tumultuous storms with swells and fog with steadily constant hands like that of a compass, the strong Russian mind is able to guide the timid and weak out of distracted dreams to a realized life. Valiantly soaring above the valley yet carefully watching the ground below, the Russian mind is more triumphant in Ivanov's work than the somber Russian soul displayed in Kandinsky's.

Ivanov achieves an alternation of attitudes in addressing his dichotomous impression of Russia. Each quartet of lines presents strong qualities ("willful", "steady" and "like an eagle") while admitting the more somber and difficult aspects ("gloomy", "timid" and "sober"). In doing so, Ivanov addresses both aspects evenly, if not equally, and represents a fuller glimpse into the nationalistic spirit of his Russian. Kandinsky seemingly dwells more on the latter and sadder representation, while acknowledging the former, brighter and bolder. The brightness and boldness comes not from the literary with strong words (as it does to Ivanov) but from the literal with bright and bold colors used for the people and structure in the distance. Kandinsky two years later created another "Landscape", bringing this boldness to the foreground and focus, with a canvas that was brighter, afire with color and action only alluded to in his backgrounds and Ivanov's poem. Kandinsky's "Russian Woman in a Landscape"'s more pervasive despondency reflects more accurately the social and political climate contemporary to the 1906 painting: He (and Russia) had witnessed the awaited Revolution and the turmoil, confusion and problems that came with it. It brought sadness and temporary isolation but on the horizon (up the hill) was the promise of a bright future for Russia. Ivanov had not been a witness to these pivotal events when writing "The Russian Mind" though he describes well the defiant and confident spirit inherent to that revolution and as well recognizes the trouble ahead and at the time in the stormy "swells and fog" that is overcome with steadiness.

Stylistically, both works are nationalistic: Kandinsky's work is recognizably reminiscent of traditional iconography and pre-westernized art-intermingled with the symbolism and modernism of the emerging avant-garde. The Russian language of Ivanov's poem (to the non-Russian reader unable to recognize more than a few letters, appears to) evoke traditions and practices long part of Russian written heritage-having at the same time a forward and bold symbolic attitude. Beyond this superficiality of mere appearances, both works are nationalistic in their representative holistic approach to the prototypical Russian, not alone but taken in the context of the greater Russia as a whole. Kandinsky's "Woman" is not the sole subject in the painting but an integral part of her surroundings. Though she is in the forefront, she cannot be viewed without consideration for her environment, to see not an individual in the middle of nowhere but a Russian in a Russian meadow on a Russian hill overlooking the Russian shore. Likewise, the Ivanov's "Russian Mind" is more than the contents of a single brain. It encompasses the collective will of Russia, a strong, willful nation able to acknowledge its shortcomings without being restrained by them. More of a conscious contemplation of those shortcomings, though without regretful sorrow, Kandinsky's "Woman" is a piece to ponder and consider in its place, while Ivanov's "Mind" is more a rallying cry and call to arms and to action. The men of Russia with their Russian minds brought forth change and upheaval, and the woman on the hill is left to reflect on the aftermath and its eventual end and overthrow. As such, both works foreshadowed and reflected the historic events surrounding their creation while remaining independent representations powerful enough for identifying and catalyzing Russian nationalism separate from their respective contexts. Together they depict the whole Russian, at once strong and resolute while cognizant of the dark past and ready for the bright future.


As you can plainly see, it's a steaming pile of--well, whatever it was it earned me a B with illegibly scrawled notations about illogical statements and sloppy writing. Remember, though, that my studies were in engineering, not poetry or art appreciation.

And speaking of art appreciation, I've copied the works in question below for those of you who didn't click the links above, without permission, of course.
Russian Woman in a Landscape by KandinskyThe Russian Mind (1890)

Willful and avid mind,-
The Russian mind is dangerous as flame:
So unrestrainable, so clear,
A happy and a gloomy mind.
Like the steady hand of a compass
It sees the pole through swells and fog;
It leads the timid will
From distracted dreams to life.
Like an eagle gazing through the mist
To survey the valley's dust
It soberly contemplates the earth,
Floating in a mystic night.

click here to see this in the original Russian.


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