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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Cult of Beauty Alive at Tretyakov

Russia has never known what to make of the mysterious, provocative, fantastic images of artist Mikhail Vrubel.

During his life (1856-1910), his innovative technique brought him both great acclaim and great disdain. At different times during this century he has been championed as the key founder of the Russian style and vilified as the very height of indulgent, bourgeois decadence.

But an exhibit opened this month at the New Tretyakov Gallery, "Mikhail Vrubel in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow Museums, and Private Collections," firmly establishes Vrubel's role as one of the most influential figures of the modern style that characterized the turn of the century.

On display are more than 130 drawings and sketches, pastels and watercolors as well as a number of his studies for theater sets, icons, architectural embellishments and majolica, a sufficient representation of Vrubel's considerable talent.

While the exhibit ultimately fails to convey any real chronology or the simultaneous evolution of his technique and later mental deterioration, it manages to impart the real gist of his creative legacy and genius.

Born in Omsk, Vrubel studied at the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts at St. Petersburg in 1864 and some years later at The Royal Academy between 1880 and 1884. He was greatly influenced by his tutor Pavel Chistyakov, who inspired his strong attention to detail and his tendency to break up surfaces into small segments, characteristics that form the basis of his style.

The major pieces on display, such as "The Demon Seated" (1890), "Portrait of N.I. Zabela-Vrubel" (1898) and "The Flight of Faust and Mephistopheles" amply illustrate his powerful technique and deep spiritual resonance. However, the more minor works indicate a certain tentativeness and sentimentality he was at times given to.

Although the exhibition illustrates Vrubel's role as one of the most influential artists of the art nouveau period, his particular contribution in the development of Russian art nouveau specifically remains ambiguous, as his most distinctly art nouveau canvases are his least notable, while his real masterpieces doggedly continue to elude classification, proving that great artists cannot be confined to a single movement.

Each piece is conducted in the "cult of beauty" motif which typified the art nouveau style and exudes a kinetic energy, mastery of color and vivacity that is utterly unique. The flat, square patches of color tend to mimic mosaic, his favorite medium. (His work in mosaic adorns the facade of Moscow's Metropol Hotel.)

Blocks of fervent brush-strokes imbue the composition with a feel of dissonance and all the fragility of stained glass. The mottled tones and textured likenesses go some way towards anticipating the work of Lucian Freud.

While fundamentally an adherent of the art nouveau movement, Vrubel was also strongly attracted to the decorative and applied arts, interests brought to fruition by the benevolent patronage of Savva Mamontov (whose portrait is one of the first to greet visitors to the exhibit) at his Abramtsevo estate.

Images from folk art, as well as a singularly unique mastery of color, contributes to Vrubel's astounding achievements.

Toward the middle of his career Vrubel became obsessed with Lermontov's "The Demon," which he illustrated (to a non-impressed public) in 1890-91. Vrubel considered the Demon to embody "the human spirit suffering and melancholy but powerful and great." After 1891 nearly all of his great works bear something of the Demon in them -- beauty, fear and solitude.

The emergence and eventual dominance of this theme in his work corresponded to a decline in his mental health, to which he succumbed in 1906. He died in complete confinement in 1910.

His work has now become as integral to Russian culture as Lermontov, with whom he is largely associated. In truth, he should be remembered as a key contributor to the creative legacy of Russia as a whole. He possessed truly singular talents as a colorist, draftsman, monumentalist, and decorator.

His endeavor to depict the spiritual realm in fine art at a time when overt symbolism tended to be frowned upon attests to his triumphant individualism.

Tickets cost 9,000 rubles ($1.50), 3,000 rubles for students. The exhibition is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily except Monday at the New Tretyakov Gallery, 10 Krymsky Val, Tel. 238-1378. Nearest metro: Oktyabrskaya.