The most difficult task in studying Symbolism is working out who is a Symbolist artist. There’s no shortage of choice of different criteria, but each has the same problems: many artists who are today accepted as being Symbolists don’t meet those criteria, and many of those who do meet them were fiercely independent of the Symbolist movement when they were alive.
This week’s artist is a case in point: Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel (Михаи́л Алекса́ндрович Вру́бель) (1856-1910) spent his working life away from the Symbolist movement, and if anything adopted the style of Art Nouveau. But he meets most of the criteria for being a Symbolist, and is now considered to have been one of the great Russian Symbolist artists.
Vrubel was born in the Russian city of Omsk, more than a thousand miles from Moscow, in south-western Siberia. He came from a military family, and first graduated in law. The year after obtaining his degree, he started as a pupil at the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg. Once he had completed three years there, he was commissioned to paint replacement murals and design mosaics for Saint Cyril’s Church in Kiev, in the Ukraine, which had suffered a disastrous fire in 1734 in which it lost its original works of art from the twelfth century.
In his research for this challenging task, Vrubel stayed in Venice, where he studied mediaeval artworks, and his own painting style changed.
He then seems to have been based in Kiev, where he started to develop images based on Mikhail Lermontov’s long Romantic poem Demon (1829-39). This tells the story of a fallen and nihilistic angel who in his passion for Tamara, a Georgian ‘maid of the mountains’, pursues her, but finally admits defeat in the moment of his victory. It was banned in Russia for many years and first published in Berlin in 1856. Vrubel also became fascinated by the art of the Middle East, particularly Persian carpets.
In the early 1880s, Vrubel tried a couple of literary motifs. Above is his 1883 watercolour double portrait of Hamlet and Ophelia, and below is a second version of the pair from the following year. They’re sufficiently similar in content and composition as to be variations on the same theme, but the whole tenor of the painting below is sombre, and its impression is as disturbing as Shakespeare’s play.
Vrubel moved to Moscow in 1890, where he painted, designed stained glass and crafted majolica pottery in Art Nouveau style. Critical reception was mixed: conservative reaction was predictably negative, but he seems to have developed quite a following among the more bohemian and avant garde, including at least one key patron.
It was his Demon (Sitting) which really stirred up the critics when he exhibited it in 1890. Its literary reference to Lermontov’s long-banned poem were probably sufficient to generate adverse comments, but his very modern style must have been equally shocking. The demon’s body appears sculpted against exuberant vegetation and rocks which are assembled from tiles of paint. This resembles some of the coarse ‘Divisionist’ paintings of the early twentieth century, and may relate to his mosaic art. The brilliant blue of the demon’s clothing vies with his body for dominance in the image.
Vrubel painted some fine views of Venice, including this decorative panel from 1893. It shows some typically Venetian buildings, with a group of celebrants from a ball or festival in the foreground. The figures are more complex than they first appear though: closest to the viewer is a younger adult whose left hand, clad in red, is grasping part of the stonework, and just behind and to the left is an older and more indistinct head of someone in period costume. These figures look like a collage in paint.
In the 1890s, Vrubel painted some more conventional floral works, including Yellow Roses from 1894, which demonstrate his technical skill.
Set against a roughly-sketched hanging carpet, Vrubel’s Card Reader or Fortune Teller from 1895 is a portrait of a ‘gypsy’ woman who ‘reads’ the future fortunes of others using playing cards. Although some preferred special Tarot cards for this purpose, regular playing cards were more readily available.
In 1896, Vrubel painted The Princess of Dreams, whose literary reference is now so obscure as to make this painting quite opaque. The reference is to Edmond Rostand’s play La Princesse Lointaine (1895), which he wrote for the actress Sarah Bernhardt. It’s based on the story of a twelfth century troubador Jaufre Rudel, who goes in quest for the love of Hodierna of Jerusalem, the princess of his dreams. During his journey, the troubador falls ill and dies before he meets the princess, who then retires to a convent for the rest of her life. Rostand altered the story to make the troubador fall in love not with Hodierna but her jilted daughter Melisende, who was played by Sarah Bernhardt.
The same year, Vrubel turned his attention to Goethe’s Faust, and seems to have made at least two paintings of scenes from its dramatic story. That above is a watercolour sketch of Faust and Margarita in the Garden, which was most probably turned into a finished painting, which I haven’t been able to locate.
Below is the finished version of the Flight of Faust and Mephistopheles, in which he uses small and sometimes tiled patches of flat colour, outlined in black, to model its figures. This is similar to the style adopted by many of the artists who illustrate modern graphic novels, for example.