By the mid 1880s, the Russian realist movement reached something of a watershed. Of the great writers, Dostoevsky and Turgenev were dead, and Tolstoy had renounced art in favor of religion. By the early 1890s, a series of new artistic trends began to appear. Influenced initially by French literature and art as well as by the art of Romanticism (Russian and European), the Russian decadents and symbolists turned from novelistic prose to lyric poetry and, eventually, to drama. They also rejected the commonly-held belief that art should serve social progress. Rather, they posited the artist as a free godlike figure whose life and work could point the way to the ideal future. In the visual arts, we can see how abrupt the turn away from realism was if we look at the painting of Mikhail Aleksandrovich Vrubel (1856-1910).
Mikhail Vrubel "The Demon Seated" (1890). The subject of this painting is the hero of Mikhail Lermontov's Romantic narrative poem of the same name. This work, written in the late 1830s tells the story of a byronic demon fated to love a Georgian princess, who dies as a result of his kiss. She is saved by angels, while he is doomed to spend eternity alone. This over-heated story fit perfectly with the Romantic temperament, but would have been anathema to realist writers and painters. Vrubel described the Demon as "A spirit which unites in itself the male and female appearances, a spirit which is not so much evil as suffering and wounded, but withal a powerful and noble being." Note the otherworldly expression in the Demon's eyes (as opposed to the expression on Turgenev's face #1, for example), symbolic of the existence of a world beyond that of the everyday. Note also the background, which is filled with such symbolically-laden images as sunset, fire (which stands for the end of the world), as well as aggressively non-realistic flowers.
Alexandre Benois (1870-1960) was the artistic moving force behind the World of Art movement. It originated in a circle of like-minded friends who dubbed themselves the "Nevsky Pickwickians", and they devoted themselves to rescuing those artistic traditions that had been neglected or denigrated by the Wanderers. Rather than trying to create a purely Russian art, they opened themselves to the best of contemporary European painting, and they promoted the pictorial heritage of the Russian middle ages and 18th century. The culmination of the World of Art group's activities, was the publication of the luxurious journal of the same name which was published between 1898-1904. This journal was the leading organ for the communication of modern ideas on art as a form of mystical experience. Its pages were open to the leading symbolist writers, and its splendid color illustrations reproduced the work of contemporary Russian painters as well as leading practitioners of Art Nouveau from Western Europe. Benois was one of the journal's leading critics (for a sample of his critical writing, see John Bowlt, "Russian Art of the Avant Garde" pp. 3-6), and one of his particular interests was the tradition of the Italian A commedia dell'arte, which he promoted both in his artistic work--as in this gouache of 1905--and in his criticism. This interest would culminate in his designs for the Ballets Russes production of "Petrushka" in 1911 (see illustrations # 42-44, 46-47, 49-50 ).