Friday, June 27, 2008

Vasnetsov’s Flight of Fantasy

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.
Thanks, Barry.


Unknown said...

The object of the guy is a cage with a "flame-bird", which he has caught in his travels (actually, catching it was the goal of those travels). It is a fairy bird which shines by itself, as a flame, and has some other magic abilities, which I've completely forgotten by now. Both the flying carpet and the flame-bird are common Russian folklore fixtures, they are not pure Vasnetsov's imagination.

Unknown said...

Sorry, I meant "the object in front of the guy".

Unknown said...

By the way, this "earthly realism" is associated with just one, albeit influential, movement in the 19th century Russia. Michael Wrubel's "demon", for example, has also little to do with realism as such, let alone the multitude of biblical paintings and earlier romantics.

Unknown said...

This makes me regret Russian art was so attached to ideologies that were so realistic. The folk lore there is so rich. This painting blows me away. It's as though there were a long tradition of fantastic art there.

James Gurney said...

Thank you, Lena, for explaining the flame-bird. I guess that's the same story that Stravinsky used for the Firebird Suite? I've discovered that you click through the reproduction on Wikipedia, there's a huge version of the file where you can actually see the bird.

As you say, Vasnetsov inspired other artists to pursue folklore, including Bilibin. And the musical composers were definitely digging deeply into fantasy. I only wish Repin had kept painting more from history and folklore, because he was so gifted at it.

Unknown said...

Thank you everyone for enlightening me to this period and place's art.

I knew absolutely nyet about it!

Gotta read up on it now!

Erik Bongers said...

Yup, Stravinsky was on my mind too when I read abouth the 'flame-bird'.
You know, initially I thought the object was a train's front lamp, as the painting was a commission for a railway station. The carpet being a metaphor for traveling with a train. Latter may still hold of course.

Unknown said...

I know nothing about this but I'd love to know if anyone does.
Did the (re_)introduction of fantastic elements into Russian art(including music)coincide with the fall or response against communism?
When we learned about communist art, especially avant garde stuff, it seemed very concerned with a sense of realism.

James Gurney said...

Eric, apparently the radical journalist Chernyshevsky was a key figure in both the movement for realism and the foundations for communism later on. There's a lot more about him on

I don't know much about the political history, but in terms of art, the movement for realism in the 1870s and 80s was not the same sort of realism that was going on in France. The Russians rejected the concept of “art for art’s sake” that was at the root of Impressionist realism. The Russians believed that all art should be concerned with, but subordinate to, reality. Another way to put it is: "art is fine, but nature is better.”

Unknown said...

To James -- yes, the fire-bird is the same thing (I made up the flame-bird translation on the spot, and missed, apparently).

To Erik -- this whole period was, strictly speaking, one or two generations before the communism became dominant (after the revolution). However, the movement of "earthly realism" (of which Repin was the brightest figure) was primarily about social responsibility -- they wanted to paint FOR (poor) people and, many of them, about their sufferings in the tzarist Russia. So, they tried to exhibit not in the museums (i.e. not for well-to-do public), but to organize "on-the-move" exhibitions accessible to the poor, to the peasants etc. Their name of the movement was actually something like "on-the-move-niks" (I am again making up the translation, probably there is an established term somewhere, which I don't know). So, much later, in the thirties, they were claimed as predecessors by the state-imposed "social realism" of the Soviet times (albeit "social realists" were supposed to depict how good people's life is, not how bad it is).

All the while there were also quite different movements in Russian paintings, which actually flourished RIGHT AFTER the communist revolution, but were quickly suppressed in Stalin's times. That's about people like Chagal, Malevich, Kandinsky -- there were many more, but they are less famous outside Russia.

Unknown said...

This is really fascinating to me. I love to be able to put things I've learned in context. Thanks James, Thanks Lena.
In art school, in a history of design class, we learned about Constructivism and people like Lissitzy, which is what I was thinking of and seems the opposite of this wonderful piece. I think it appeals to my romantic nature to believe that fantasy was an element that helped bring the Soviet Union out from the Iron Curtain.