The Icon and the Square – Russian Modernism and the Russo-Byzantine Revival

An interview with Professor Maria Taroutina

In The Icon and the Square, Maria Taroutina examines how the traditional interests of institutions such as the crown, the church, and the Imperial Academy of Arts temporarily aligned with the radical, leftist, and revolutionary avant-garde at the turn of the twentieth century through a shared interest in the Byzantine past, offering a counternarrative to prevailing notions of Russian modernism.

Focusing on the works of four different artists—Mikhail Vrubel, Vasily Kandinsky, Kazimir Malevich, and Vladimir Tatlin—Taroutina shows how engagement with medieval pictorial traditions drove each artist to transform his own practice, pushing beyond the established boundaries of his respective artistic and intellectual milieu. She also contextualizes and complements her study of the work of these artists with an examination of the activities of a number of important cultural associations and institutions over the course of several decades. As a result, The Icon and the Square gives a more complete picture of Russian modernism: one that attends to the dialogue between generations of artists, curators, collectors, critics, and theorists.

The Icon and the Square retrieves a neglected but vital history that was deliberately suppressed by the atheist Soviet regime and subsequently ignored in favor of the secular formalism of mainstream modernist criticism. Taroutina’s timely study, which coincides with the centennial reassessments of Russian and Soviet modernism, is sure to invigorate conversation among scholars of art history, modernism, and Russian culture. (Source: Penn State University Press).

During your masterful research work, what were the discoveries that struck you the most? I am thinking, above all, of the lively moment of transition that led to the 20th-century avant-gardes…

What struck me the most was how pervasive the engagement with the Byzantine representational tradition was at the turn of the century, but also how diverse and divergent different artists’ understandings and reinterpretations of that tradition were.

What are the substantial differences between the artistic environment in which Vrubel moved and those of his British and French contemporaries, in particular?

In terms of both style and subject matter, Vrubel was a real outlier in the Russian art world of the 1880s and early 1890s, which was mostly dominated by the Wanderers [Peredvizhniki]. By contrast, the first Impressionist exhibition was held in 1874 and the by the mid-1880s, painterly modernism was already well-established in Paris. Similarly, the Aesthetic movement in Britain—with its art-for-art’s sake philosophy and symbolist themes—was also well underway by the 1870s. Vrubel, by contrast, was really unique in the Russian art world. 

The Black Square by Malevich is considered a real bridge for what art exhibitions represented before it and what they represent today. What role did it play, especially in the active involvement of viewers?

There is a really excellent essay by Christian Lodder on the performative and experiential qualities of Malevich’s curatorial approach, which specifically addresses this question: Christina Lodder, “Malevich as Exhibition Maker.” In: Hume Achim Borchardt, Malevich. Tate Publishing, 2014, pp. 94-98. ISBN 978-1-84976-146-8 

May I ask what projects you are currently working on?

I am currently working on two new book projects: a monograph on Mikhail Vrubel and a study of Russian imperial visual culture, tentatively titled Exotic Aesthetics: Art, Race, and Representation in Imperial Russia. 

Maria Taroutina is Assistant Professor of Art History at Yale-NUS College in Singapore.