Art and Ideas in Russian Culture

The course explores important trends in Russian creative arts from the early period through the early twentieth century, exploring the “ideas” that were behind the production and reception of various types of Russian art. It tracks the major cultural changes in Russian history, primarily the transformation from a world shaped by Orthodox religious art (icons, frescos) to a world shaped by West European canons. Peter I (ruled 1682-1725) forcibly imposed cultural Westernization on his elites (not the peasant or merchant classes). Noblemen were forced to dress in European clothes, adopt European etiquette and pastimes (dancing), design their homes in European architectural styles and fill them with art painted (by Europeans and Russians) to European tastes, including portraits. By the nineteenth century, artists were using art as a political statement, allegorically criticizing autocratic reality in their choice of topics, particularly historical paintings. By the early twentieth century, Russian artists, part of mainstream European art, were rejecting such “realism” and social critique and developing abstract modernism. That trend in turn was shut down by Soviet cultural policies in the 1930s, reinstating “socialist realism.”

Field trips and events are planned to various works of Russian art in the area. They will include some of the following:  Legion of Honor, San Francisco (Makovskii’s great canvas in his “Boyar’s Wedding” series); Christ the Savior Church (Orthodox Church of America), 12th and Anza, San Francisco, (discussion with parish priest Rev. Philip Halliwell, seeing icons in situ in small neighborhood parish and discussing the role and theory of icons in Orthodox liturgy with Fr Halliwell);  The Joy of All Who Sorrow Cathedral, Geary St., San Francisco (Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia) (to see icons in situ in large, imposing cathedral); Katia’s Restaurant, San Francisco (authentic Russian cuisine); Fort Ross, northern California (restored Russian fortress and chapel; art in situ.) Viewing of movie “Andrei Rublev,” about an icon painter in 15th-c Russia; Cantor Art Museum (small collection of icons, including a 17th century icon); De Basily Room, Hoover Institution (18th-c Russian portraits); Art Collection, Hoover Institution Library (rare editions of Russian art publications, late 19th c.); Green Library Special Collections (facsimile edition of 16th-c illustrated historical chronicle); Rumsey Map Center, Green Library (18th-c Russian maps and their decorative cartouches).

Throughout we explore art in the context of ideas -- why were various kinds of art produced? what were their intended purposes? who were their intended audiences? How can we appreciate creative works as “art” when they weren’t intended to be art, such as icons? They were considered holy objects, actors in liturgical worship. Similarly, realist paintings of the nineteenth century were intended as critique more than art, as were penny broadsheets that circulated. Other works, such as portraits of noblemen and decorative elements on maps, were intended to assert social status or political authority. We might ask the same questions of some material objects, such as crowns and imperial regalia, thrones and some works of architecture. So the course is an opportunity to join appreciation of creative works with historical and cultural assessment of their production and reception.

Students will be asked to write a paper on one particular work of art – an icon, a portrait, an oil painting, an object. This course should be interesting to students interested in the broad sweep of Russian history as well as in medieval religious art (especially Orthodox) and modern European art. Class sessions will discuss assigned readings and images posted to a class art gallery from Professor Kollmann’s extensive collection of images of Russian icons, art and objects. Students will report on their research paper along the way, culminating in formal presentations.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Nancy Kollmann

William H. Bonsall Professor in History

Nancy Kollmann went to college thinking she’d join the Foreign Service and immersed herself in Russian language and literature. But a junior semester to Leningrad provoked a passion for history, and she has been studying Russia’s early modern centuries ever since (Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great!). She came to Stanford in 1982 and ever since has taught lecture and seminar classes on early modern Russia and Eastern Europe and their place in Europe and Eurasia. Her research and writing has explored how “autocracy” worked in practice, often employing anthropological and comparative approaches. In three big books, she has studied how the great men of the realm got their power through marriage and kinship links (Kinship and Politics 1987), how all people went to the tsar’s court to defend their personal honor (By Honor Bound 1999), and how the criminal justice system worked in practice (Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia 2012). One of the most exciting parts of studying Russian history for her has been exploring Russia’s connection with Eurasia – the lands of the Silk Road, steppe nomads, Mongols, Cossacks and Siberian natives – and she has recently published a survey textbook on it -- The Russian Empire, 1450-1801. In a radical change of pace, she is now studying visual depictions of Russia in European maps and engravings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Jack Kollmann

The title of this course reflects how my personal interests in studying Russian history have evolved.  For my dissertation (Michigan) I worked on church and state dynamics in Muscovite Russia in the 16th century during the reign of Ivan IV the Terrible.  The more time I spent in Russia -- some 50 visits to date, variously as a language student, a visiting scholar, a leader of culturally oriented tours from the U.S., and as a BOSP instructor with Stanford students -- the more I became interested in Russian culture more broadly, especially art and architecture.  When I step out on Red Square in Moscow or Palace Square in St. Petersburg (where I just was this June/July), the same questions jog my mind that first came to me years ago:  where did these buildings come from?  Who commissioned them, who designed them, where did their ideas come from?  What is "Russian" about these two magnificent squares, what is "European," and what is "other"?  Similar questions come to mind when I study Russian art.  From medieval Russian icons to revolutionary art of the early 20th century, what energized the Russian artist, what did he or she seek to accomplish?  In my pursuit of understanding Russian architecture and art, I have taken thousands of photographs in Russia, a collection that I use in publications, photo exhibits, the classroom, and online sites for courses.