We tend to associate 19th century Russian painting with earthy and uncompromising realism, so it’s a rare treat to see what one of the Russian painters came up with in the realm of fantasy.
This image by Victor Vasnetsov (1848-1926) is called “Flying Carpet” from 1880. It was commissioned for a railway station, and contains some of the era’s sense of optimism and adventure.
The colors are muted, both in the cloudy sky and the winter landscape below. A scrap of cloud, a slice of river, and a trio of owls hover at the edges of the composition.
The hero stands astride the carpet, his jacket flapping. What is his mission? And what is that enigmatic object in front of him? A lamp? The Ark of the Covenant? A steampunk jukebox?
This painting was criticized by Russian writers for undermining the new spirit of realism. The influential writer Chernyshevsky argued that “aesthetic beauty can only exist as an exact reflection of physical reality and not a manifestation of the imagination. Only in representations of physical reality…can the artist reveal true beauty.”
Eventually thinkers like Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Vladimir Stasov won over Repin, Vasnetsov’s good friend, who had painted a few fantastic scenes, like "Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom" (for which Vasnetsov was the model). Repin gradually moved away from imaginative subjects, but Vasnetsov, despite the critics, followed his vision of painting scenes from folklore and mythology.
Wikipedia entry on Vasnetsov, link.
Link to GJ post showing Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom by Repin.