If you mention Russia what comes to mind? Boris Yeltzin? McDonald's in Red Square? Poverty? Cold, cold winters? Nobody mentioned art? Aside from an abiding love for the ballet and Chekhov, there's little about Russia right now to suggest art. But almost one hundred years ago, as the twentieth century dawned, Russia was brimming with art and artists of all kinds. Some giants of later years were still students, such as Wassily Kandinsky, Marc Chagall, and Kasimir Malevich, but the country was alive with a creative energy that would sadly soon be doused with the hardships of Communism, the World Wars, and world Depressions pock-marking Russian history during much of the century. Socially, artistically, economically, politically, at the beginning of this century, it was a country poised to leap forward. It was a leap of faith and it's unfortunate that it landed flat on its face. But some of the artists it launched, fleeing elsewhere, were fortunate enough to soar!
There have always been two, largely conflicting, influences in Russian art. One came from the West--Monet, Matisse, Renoir, Gauguin, van Gogh, Picasso (you can list them as well as I can). The other has been traditional, growing out of Eastern Orthodoxy, as Russian, as Greek, as mystical, and as mysterious as the Cyrillic alphabet. One involves the rapid, emotional, instinctive layering on of paint to canvas as much at one with the Russian spirit as vodka. The other is laborious, tedious, controlled, delicate, and a jewel-like as a Czarist Fabergé egg. So radically different were these influences that seldom was any artist able to assimilate both into a single work of art. Mikhail Vrubel, in 1904, in his painting Six-Winged Seraph came close, but the mixture is a dark, uneasy cohabitation atypical of anything anyone else was doing at the time. Perhaps Marc Chagall, later, in Paris, came closest to melding Western influences with traditional Russian culture, but not Orthodox iconography in any way.
Largely responsible for launching Russian art into the realm of modern art were two wealthy Moscow collectors, Sergei Shcukin and Ivan Morozov. Shcukin had over 200 French paintings from the late nineteenth century in his home, and over fifty more by Matisse and Picasso alone. Shcukin even allowed them privately furnished rooms in his home where they stayed when they visited the city. Morozov's collection tended toward Post-Impressionism. In the absence of great art museums in the city, both men opened their homes to the public every Saturday. They became meccas for art students to study and meet one another. And had not the reality of war, defeat, and political upheaval intruded, Moscow or St. Petersburg might have come to rival Paris as the eye of the European art hurricane.