Artist and Revolution: life or death decisions. Part I

As a rule, people who genuinely love art don’t resort to violence as a solution even in the face of a massive wrong but accept the violence of others in the hope their love of art would protect them. It never does.

I think wrapping up the Revolution series with a few stories of artists who lived through the Great Socialist Revolution of 1917 in Russia is not a bad idea then, is it?

Victor Vasnetzov, Knight at the Crossroads, 1882

This painting by Victor Vasnetzov illustrates the famous Russian fairytale of a knight at a crossroads, an ancient stone clairvoyantly offering him three options. Go left and lose your horse, go right and lose your head, go straight and get a wife. The latter option was less about the quiet life of a retired middle-class warrior and more about losing one’s freedom and purpose in life. After the revolution upended society, Russian artists faced a similar choice.

Emigrate to stay true to yourself and your art; remain in Russia, stay true to your art and lose your head; marry into the Socialist ideology, adapt and prosper. Of course, the ingenious Russian mind designed two more ways out of this impasse – “internal emigration” and “tongue-in-cheek symbiosis with Socialism”.

Internal emigration means you stay true to yourself and your Muse, but you don’t go public with your art. Your income comes from outside of the art world. Since the 1920s, this escapist path has become a common strategy for intellectuals who couldn’t or wouldn’t want to leave Russia. We have had many poets, painters, singers, and writers working as plumbers, cleaners, and boiler-men. Tongue-in-cheek symbiosis means you do art that the state wants you to do, but you leave secret signs that you do not approve it in the hope that some future critic would discover these Easter eggs and pronounce you a rebel artist.

Yes, that was the life selection menu at the time:


Let’s begin with the artists who lost their lives.

Staying in Russia and dying for it

The current list of painters (only painters!) who were branded enemies of the people stands at 559. Half of them were executed. Those who escaped a firing squad would get ten to twenty-five years of GULAG which was more or less the same as a death sentence, albeit the one drawn out in time. I’ve left out sculpture, art photography, literature, theatre, and cinema but rest assured the counter goes well into thousands there.

I am sure some of those 559 painters didn’t like the brave new world, but many, if not most, of the painters who found themselves on the receiving end of the hammer and the sharp end of the sickle, were wholeheartedly supportive of the Bolsheviks. And some just failed to portray Stalin with realistic precision.

Were all of them good artists? Some of them were, I am sure. A few might have become equals to Picasso or Matisse. We’d never know how many potential geniuses were killed off by the Bolsheviks.

Stay true to art, emigrate.

Wassily Kandinsky (age 51 in 1917)

He embraced the October revolution with enthusiasm, as might be expected of someone who had begun a new life as a married man (he was 50, his wife was 17) just a few months before it. In a bizarre twist of fate, Kandinsky became a bureaucrat – a member of the creative council for the department of visual arts of the People’s Commissary of Education and the chairman of the All-Russia Art Purchasing Commission. He didn’t have time to remain an artist, and his artistic output dwindled to only a few paintings in two years.

V.Kandinsky, 1918. Composition No.218 (Two Ovals). This is one of the few paintings Kandinsky made while being a Soviet bureaucrat.

In 1920, his son died. Next year, he and his wife travelled to Berlin to establish cultural links between Germany and Soviet Russia. They never intended to come back.

Kandinsky escaped socialism and became known as the father of abstraction.

Marc Chagall (age 30 in 1917)

Just before the WWI broke out, Chagall had an artistic breakthrough at his Berlin exhibition, a resounding success. He then left for Russia, where he married the love of his life. The 1917 Revolution inspired Chagall, a happily married man with a 2-year-old daughter at the time. He became the Commissar for Art in his home town, Vitebsk. In 1918, he was given the task of a city-wide decoration to celebrate “the paper anniversary” of the revolution. According to contemporaries’ memoirs, the whole city, its buildings and trams, were covered by panels featuring soaring goats, fiddles, and happy flying couples. Next year, Chagall became the director of a local art school. He soon turned out to be less revolutionary than his students wanted him to be. Blaming Malevich for inciting the students, Chagall had to resign. In 1923 he moved his family from Moscow to Berlin and then to Paris. Despite his success, he would be tortured by nostalgia for decades to come.

Marc Chagall, 1918. Promenade. When Chagall finally returned to Russia in 1973, he went to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and stood in front of this painting for a very long time.

Zinaida Serebryakova (age 33 in 1917)

Her family was unique in the history of Russian art. Established by Italian, French and German nationals who found their home in Russia, it was engendering top architects, sculptors, painters, musicians, critics, and educators for over a century – like a Star Wars cloning facility. In her generation of great-grand-children of the founding fathers, she was the most gifted and the least bohemian.

In 1917, she was a happy wife and mother with four kids, and an internationally successful artist with progressive views that she was delighted to share with local peasants, whose appreciation of her progressiveness was so high they offered her sufficient lead time to escape with her family before the sack of her estate.

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Zinaida Serebryakova, The Whitening of canvas. 1917

These peasant ladies were masterfully painted in the summer of 1917. It is quite likely they joined in the looting and burning of Serebryakova’s house a few months later.

Regardless of their family’s progressive views, her husband was arrested by the Bolsheviks and died of typhus soon after his release from prison. Until 1920 she was trying to survive signing up for a variety of draughtsman jobs and doing occasional portraits.

In 1920, she left for Paris. She was allowed to take only two kids with her: the other two had to stay behind as hostages. She would never return to Russia and would see her abandoned children only at the end of her life.

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Zinaida Serebryakova, 1919. The House of Cards. Next year, emigration would make her separated from two of her children.

Boris Grigoriev (age 31 in 1917)

Before the 1917 Revolution, the Intimite series of graphic art that Grigoriev made during his visits to Paris in 1911 and 1913 brought him fame and recognition.  

Having had a healthy dose of pre-war Parisian decadence, Grigoriev focused on post-revolution Russia. In 1918, he completed the Raseya cycle of paintings. Raseya is synonymous to Russia but with a bitter-sweet flavour of affection, frustration, and nostalgia about by-gone ways of life that Russians often feel about their own country.   

In a few months, Grigoriev’s Raseya would be swiped away by war, famine, and pestilence. This series had become a pre-mortem portrait of the country, its ancient origins, its turbulent history, its wretched people with beastly magnetic eyes, and its land, as wrinkled and furrowed as the peasants’ faces in Grigoriev’s paintings.

At first, Grigoriev didn’t want to leave the country. He wanted to be a part of the new Russia. He joined a pro-revolution union of artists and started teaching at an art school. It all failed. In 1919, he took his family on a night boat-ride across the Baltic sea to escape to Finland. From there, they went to Berlin, then moved to Paris, then to the USA, and finally settled in the South of France. He would become a successful artist there and won’t come back to Russia again, but just as Chagall, he would always be nostalgic – not about the actual country, but about Raseya that he painted back in 1918. 

Nicolai Fechin (36 in 1917)

By 1917, he had become the lead teacher in Kazan‘s premier art school, his works regularly exhibited in Europe and the US, wealthy American and European collectors coveting his paintings and portraits, and students adoring him. 

Paintings that made him famous addressed ancient traditions, a curious product of Christianity and paganism, like The Wedding of Cheremise people or The Dowsing with Water. 

The Wedding of Cheremise People, 1908

While in Russia The Wedding was criticised for the cartoonish portrayal of Russia and The Dowsing for its wild style, collectors in the West enjoyed Fechin’s marrying impressionism to Art Nouveau. In The Dowsing, it was more than just a cross of two styles – there was innovation all over it. It is impossible not to feel the energy and excitement of people being doused with cold water as they are passing the village well on a hot day in the ritual of the Christian purification and pagan summoning of rain. 

The Dowsing with Water. 1916

Very few portraits of children, regardless of how cute are the kids, have the capability to stick in mind. Well, this girl surely has it. 

The Dowsing with Water, fragment – Notice how the textured surface becomes another tool in shaping the emotional impact of this painting.

But it was Fechin’s portraits that collectors were after. “Photographic” faces, coalescing from the chaos of the background layers of paint, had become his signature style.

The Lady in Purple, 1908

Having lost wealthy patrons and his country estate after the revolution, Fechin didn’t embrace communism but continued teaching, making propaganda portraits of the Soviet leaders, and doing occasional design jobs for theatres, until he found a way to emigrate to the US with the help of his dedicated collector in New York. There, he became instantly successful – today, his home in Taos is a protected heritage site. Unlike most of Russian emigres, he neither wanted to come back nor felt any nostalgia.

Before we say good bye to Fechin, I want you to see the last large-scale painting he made in Russia, in 1919 – the Slaughterhouse.

If you ever find yourself in need of a metaphor for a revolution or civil war, do not look any further.

This is the end of Part I, but not the end of the list of emigres! Come back for David Burlyuk, Constantin Korovin, Philipp Malyavin, Kazimir Malevich, and many others.


  1. Kirill, thanks for reminding us about these great names. I did not know that Serebryakova had had to leave her two children behind as hostages. That almost made me cry – I love seeing the painting of her children again and again.

  2. Fascinating post! Such despairing stories, most of them, and these are the survivors… Serebryakova’s children and last painting will haunt me for life.

It would be grand to hear from you now!

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