Monday, December 8, 2014

Mikhail Vrubel

Demon (sitting)
oil on canvas
116.5 x 213.8 cm
Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia

Mikhail Alexandrovich Vrubel (1856-1910) was a versatile artist who excelled in painting, graphics, sculpture, as well as in monumental and applied arts. His name is routinely associated with Russian Symbolism and Art Nouveau. Even in his earliest works, he exhibited great talent for drawing and an idiosyncratic style. He would later develop a penchant for fragmentary composition and an "unfinished touch".

He was born in Omsk, Russia, into a military lawyer's family. His father was of Polish ancestry, while his mother who was Danish. Though he graduated from the Faculty of Law at St Petersburg University in 1880, his father recognized his talent for art and made sure to provide, through numerous tutors, what proved to be a sporadic education in the subject. The next year he entered the Imperial Academy of Arts. His mother died when he was not yet three years old and his father remarried four years later. His stepmother was a good pianist and helped develop Vrubel’s musical sensibilities. In his teen years, he became a fervent theater aficionado. Later in his life, he married a prominent opera singer Nadezhda Zabela and was on good terms with composer Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov. Many of his mature works were inspired by opera and music.

After his graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts, he was asked to help with the restoration of the 12th century St. Cyril church in Kiev. While in Kiev, he started painting sketches and watercolours illustrating the Demon, a long Romantic poem by Mikhail Lermontov. The poem described the carnal passion of "an eternal nihilistic spirit" for a Georgian girl Tamara. At that period he developed a keen interest in Oriental arts, and particularly Persian carpets, and even attempted to imitate their texture in his paintings. While living in Kiev in 1884-1889, he experienced the influence of Medieval and especially Byzantine art.

In 1890, he relocated to Moscow where he could best follow the burgeoning innovations and trends in art. Like other artists associated with the Art Nouveau style, he excelled not only in painting but also in applied arts, such as ceramics, majolics, and stained glass. He also produced architectural masks, stage sets, and costumes. He was not only a painter. He was a master of majolica. He created a majolica frieze for hotel Metropol in Moscow.

During 1896, he met a famous Russian opera singer Nadezhda Zabela. Half a year later they married and settled in Moscow, where Zabela was invited by Mamontov to perform in his private opera theatre. While in Moscow, he designed stage sets and costumes for his wife, who sang the parts of the Snow Maiden, the Swan Princess, and Princess Volkhova in Rimsky-Korsakov's operas. 

In 1901, he returned to the demonic themes in the large canvas Demon Downcast. In order to astound the public with a spiritual message, he repeatedly repainted the demon's ominous face, even after the painting had been exhibited to the overwhelmed audience. At the end he had a severe nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in a mental clinic. His mental illness was initiated or complicated by tertiary syphilis. In 1906, overpowered by mental disease and approaching blindness, he ceased painting.