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The short life of Russian painter Victor Borisov-Musatov

The artist created his own special style with the appearance of the “Musatov girl”.

Submitted by Olivia Kroth…

Mankind has always been plagued by mysterious diseases. Many people died, before the origin of the diseases were identified and remedies found. Now the world is haunted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, traveling fast around the globe. Another type of dangerous disease caused the untimely death of the talented Russian painter Victor Borisov-Musatov, who was born in 1870 and died in 1905, at the age of 35. His family thought that his constant pain in the spine and hunchback were caused by the fall from a bench, when the boy was just three years old. Yet with today’s advanced knowledge in medicine, we may presume that he was infected with  the bacteria causing spinal tuberculosis, also called Pott’s disease. It was not diagnosed and there were no remedies in Russia during the painter’s lifetime. Even today, spinal tuberculosis can still be found among children of some countries in Asia and Africa.

On the 14 th of April 2020, it is time to remember the Russian painter Victor Elpidiforovich Borisov-Musatov and honour his work, 150 years after his birth. He became prominent in Russia for his unique, decorative, symbolic style and is often referred to as the creator of Russian Symbolism. Victor Elpidiforovich Borisov-Musatov (Виктор Эльпидифорович Борисов-Мусатов) was born in Saratov, on the 14 th of April 1870. He died in Tarusa, on the 8th of November 1905.

Saratov (Саратов) is a city of Saratov Oblast and a major port on the Volga River, located upstream in the north of Volgograd. The name Saratov is derived from Sary Tau (Сары Тау), meaning “Yellow Mountain” in the Tatar language. In the 19th century, when Victor Borisov-Musatov was born, Saratov was an important trading centre for grain. At the beginning of the 20th century, it became the largest and most populated city on the Volga. Tarusa (Таруса), where the young painter died, is a small town in Kaluga Oblast, located on the left bank of the Oka River, 76 kilometres northeast of Kaluga.

Victor Musatov-Borisov’s parents were Elpidifor Borisovich Musatov and Evdokia Gavrilovna Musatova, former serfs in imperial Russia, who had been freed. His father worked as a railway employee in Saratov. In 1873, at the age of three, Victor fell from a bench. His parents thought that his back pains came from this early fall. The child’s hump began to grow and he suffered health problems for the rest of his short life. The symptoms he showed match those that nowadays doctors and scientists attribute to spinal tuberculosis, also called Pott’s disease.

According to medical experts, “spinal tuberculosis is a destructive form of tuberculosis, common in children and young adults. Characteristically, there is destruction of the intervertebral disk space and the adjacent vertebral bodies, collapse of the spinal elements, and anterior wedging leading to kyphosis and gibbus formation. The thoracic region of vertebral column is most frequently affected. Symptoms are back pain, spinal tenderness, paraplegia, and spinal deformities.”

Unfortunately, in Victor’s time, this disease was still unknown and no adequate treatment available. Today, “antituberculous treatment remains the cornerstone of treatment. Surgery may be required in selected cases, e.g. large abscess formation, severe kyphosis, an evolving neurological deficit, or lack of response to medical treatment. With early diagnosis and early treatment, prognosis is generally good.”

At school in Saratov the boy’s talents as an artist were discovered by his teachers Fyodor Vasiliev and Vasily Konovalov. In 1890, he enrolled in the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. In 1891, he transferred to the Imperial Academy of Arts in Saint Petersburg, where he became a student of the famous professor Pavel Chistyakov. However, the damp climate of Saint Petersburg was not good for Victor’s frail health.

In 1893, he returned to the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, where he gained fame with his painting “Poppies in a garden” (1894) and was considered to be the leader of a new art movement. Increasingly he moved away from a direct transcription of nature towards a depiction of mood. “Poppies in a garden” still has traits of Impressionism but his later works are premeditated exercises in colour, form and composition.

In 1895, Victor Borisov-Musatov traveled to France to attend art classes in Paris for three years. He studied classical drawing techniques and constantly corrected his own technique. He also liked to visit museums and galleries in Paris, admiring the works of venerable artists. Victor was fascinated by the art of his French contemporaries, especially by the paintings of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, the father of French Symbolism.

Every summer, he returned to his home in Saratov to paint Russian nature and people, for example the “Reapers” (1898). He again took a liking to Saratov, “where there are fewer people, where everything is simpler and cleaner.” Of course, the provincial Russian town of Saratov could hardly be compared to Paris, the capital of France. The artist’s bad health often influenced his mood. He fell into what he called “his fin de siècle nostalgia”. Victor liked to complain about “the cruel iron age”, “dirt and boredom”, “devil’s bog”, as he had acute problems with his spine.

The artist created his own special style with the appearance of the “Musatov girl”. His many paintings of girls and young women in early 19th-century dress resemble the retrospective paintings of the group that called itself the “Russian World of Art” (Mir Iskusstva). Victor Borisov-Musatov added a new note of melancholy, of an imaginary past irretrievably lost.

The expression on the faces of the typical “Musatov girl” shows a note of introspection, which remained characteristic of his oeuvre for the rest of his life. Increasingly, the painter moved away from a depiction of nature towards an expression of mood. His mood came close to that of his friends, the contemporary Russian Symbolist poets Valery Bryusov and Andrey Bely. He abandoned oil paintings for the mixed tempera, pastel and water colour techniques that he found more suitable for the subtle visual effects he was trying to achieve.

The painter’s friend Valery Yakovlevich Bryusov (1873-1924) was one of the principal members of the Russian Symbolist Movement. His work is characterized by the desire to escape from everyday reality to a new world, as portrayed in the works of French symbolists. In his poetry Bryusov is a lonely dreamer:

Shadow of uncreated creatures
Fluttering in a dream
Like blades of patches
On the enamel wall.

Purple hands
On an enamel wall
Drowsy sounds drowsy
In the sonorous sound of silence …

The other friend who shared the painter’s Symbolist mood was Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev, better known by his pen name Andrey Bely (1880-1934). His intellectual interests ranged from Dostoyevsky to the anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, from Western civilization to the occult forces of the East. He was the author of the extraordinary, innovative novel “Petersburg”, of numerous prose works, as well as collections of poems.

One of his poems describes his own life, yet it is symbolic for all lives cut short, like that of the young painter Victor Borisov-Musatov and even those lives ravished by the dreadful coronavirus pandemic these days. As a true work of art it surpasses all times, pointing towards the future:

Andrey Bely, “To my friends”

He believed in a golden radiance,
And he died from the arrows of the sun.
He measured centuries with his thinking,
But could not live his life — this one.

Don’t laugh at the dead poet:
But come, bring him a wreath.
On the cross — winter, summer
There bangs my porcelain wreath.

Its flowers now are broken;
The icon faded gray.
Such heavy stones. I’m waiting
For someone to take them away.

He loved ringing bells and the sunset …
Only this …
Why is it so painful, so painful!
The fault is not his.

Have pity; come — think of me.
I’ll rush with my wreath toward you.
O love me — love me.
Perhaps I’m not dead … and I’ll wake anew
And come back!

Victor Borisov-Musatov created a half-illusory world of the 19th century nobility in the Russian Empire, their parks and country-seats. Most of these paintings show Zubrilovka, an old and nearly abandoned estate of the Princes Prozorovsky-Galitzine. It was decaying because the owners seldom visited it. Zubrilovka, one of the famous estates of the Volga region, is located in the village of Zubrilovo, in the Penza Oblast.

The Princes Prozorovsky (Прозоровскиe) were a Russian noble family descending from the medieval rulers of Yaroslavl and Mologa. Their name is derived from the village of Prozorovo near Mologa. In 1870, the Prozorovsky family became extinct in the male line. Emperor Nicholas I authorized Prince Alexander Fyodorovich Galitzine (1810-1898) to take the name and arms of his maternal grandfather, Field-Marshal Alexander Prozorovsky. Galitzine’s line also became extinct, in 1914, with the death of his only son, Prince Alexander Galitzine-Prozorovsky (1853-1914).

The artist liked to visit Zubrilovka with his sister Elena and portrayed her there several times. Elena recalled the seasons and their special moods, which fascinated her brother: “It was deep autumn in Zubrilovka. My brother was captivated by the faded tones of dying nature … Near the house, where he had been painting during sunny summer days, the colours were already sad and gray. The dark autumn sky was covered by clouds. It seemed as if the house was freezing. This inspired my brother to paint the mood of autumn … He explained, as I remember, that with life ending in an empty landowner’s house, everything turns into a thing of the past.”

Victor Borisov-Musatov was a member of the Union of Russian Artists, which existed from 1903 to 1923. Its members primarily painted landscapes and genre scenes of Russian life. The Union organized 18 exhibitions in Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Kazan and Kiev. Furthermore, Victor Borisov-Musatov helped to found the Moscow Association of Artists, where progressive painters gathered and propagated their new ideas.

Victor Borisov-Musatov also exerted great influence on the painters of the Blue Rose Group (Голубая роза), the foremost group of Russian Symbolist painters. The Blue Rose Group worked in Moscow, from 1906 to 1908. These artists experimented with colour as a tonal medium to construct rhythm in their paintings, eliminating shape and contour. The Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky described the group in 1907: “These artists are in love with the music of colour and line.”

The group used the title “Blue Rose” for their exhibition, in 1906. It was derived from the “Blue Flower”, described by the German Romantic writer Novalis, in his novel “Heinrich von Ofterdingen” (1800). Novalis was the pen name and pseudonym of the German aristocrat Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772-1801), an author, poet, mystic and philosopher of Early German Romanticism. For his publications he adopted the pen name Novalis from his 12th-century ancestors, who had named themselves de Novali.

The Blue Flower (Blaue Blume) became a popular, central symbol of inspiration for the German Romanticist movement. It has remained an enduring motif in art today. The Blue Flower symbolizes metaphysical striving for the infinite and unreachable. It also stands for beauty, hope, longing and spiritual love.

At the end of 1903, Victor Borisov-Musatov moved to Podolsk, closer to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. Here he created six to nine finished paintings a year. In Russia, his paintings were little exhibited and rarely bought but in Europe he was loved, invited to exhibit and able to sell his works. In 1904, Victor Borisov-Musatov enjoyed great success with his solo exhibition in a number of cities in Germany. In the spring of 1905, he exhibited with “Salon de la Société des Artistes Français” and became a member of this French society. His last finished painting is “Requiem”, devoted to the memory of the artist’s good friend Nadezhda Staniukovich.

Victor Borisov-Musatov died in Tarusa, on the 26th of October 1905. He was buried on a bank of the Oka River near Tarusa. On his tomb there is a sculpture of a sleeping boy, sculpted by one of his followers. “He died, leaving us quiet images. Time sweeps over his majestic creatures, yet they remain. They have one thing in common – eternity,” the writer Vladimir Staniukovich wrote in evaluation of Victor Borisov-Musatov’s work.

Victor Borisov-Musatov is cherished as one of the main painters of Russian Symbolism, a movement that lasted approximately 20 years and spanned two generations of painters: the first generation from 1890 to 1900 and the second generation from around 1900 to 1910. The movement actually continued to develop into a third generation of artists, who worked well into the second decade of the twentieth century.

The art critic Nikolai Tarovaty wrote about the Russian Symbolists: “An intoxicating vision beckons you into a world of ethereality and vague outlines. Dreams, unearthly silhouettes, transparent stalks of mystical flowers fanned by the light of dawn – and over all the haze of the unspoken, of that which can be fathomed only by vague presentiment.”

Life and death, the worlds of light and shadows are closely interwoven in the works of the Russian Symbolist artists. This might be a theme to meditate about, in these harsh and trying times of the global coronavirus pandemic, in April 2020.


Olivia Kroth: The journalist and author of four books lives in Moscow.

Her blog: https://olivia2010kroth.wordpress.com

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Olivia Kroth
April 8, 2020

Виктор Борисов-Мусатов (1870-1905) Victor Borisov-Musatov

Olivia Kroth
April 8, 2020

Paintings by Victor Borisov-Musatov, music by Igor Stravinsky /Игорь Фёдорович Стравинский:
Suite Italienne for Violin & Piano – II. Serenata, performed by Itzhak Perlman and Bruno Canino

Vera Gottlieb
Vera Gottlieb
April 10, 2020

Is it ever possible for ANY writer to write a “short and to the point” article instead of going on and on and on??? Seems to be the latest fashion…

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