Published: February 13, 2012

Fear, Yakunchikova (1893-5)

The influence of French Decadent poetry on Russian literature and painting at the dawn of the 20th century– particularly Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal –resulted in morbid, taboo and demonic themes. The term “Decadent,” however, comes with a lot of baggage. The artists who embraced Decadent themes around the turn of the century to some degree also embraced the negative aspects of this term – in particular a lack of philosophical backing and a rejection by and of the “regular” societal order. However, the term “Decadent” can also signify artistic decline in general and it has been used throughout the years to identify various supposedly unproductive artistic directions.

In her article “Idealism and Decadence in Russian Symbolist Poetry,” Evelyn Bristol explains that when Symbolism and Decadence came together in literature, the result was an alienated, cynical hero. This hero in general “can be said to have embodied a reversal of expected values regarding morality and health. In his religion he was a Satanist and blasphemer. He preferred his melancholia to happiness and could not rise above ennui to vigor. He was drawn to death rather than to life, and he cherished his insanity. He sought sensual refinement rather than spiritual elevation. And he disdained the mob.”

Beast, Polenova (1898)

These Decandent tendencies, both anti-social and morbid, quickly bled from Symbolist writing to Symbolist painting. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, both World of Art Symbolists and Blue Rose Symbolists were incorporating Decadent motifs into their works. For the World of Art artists in particular, the expanding arenas of magazine publishing and book design were creating avenues for Decadent expression. Valery Briusov was one of the main Russian Symbolist writers, but he was also a self-proclaimed Decadent. When he started the review Vesi (The Scales), a group of young, Decadent graphic artists gathered to work for him. Included in this group was Feofilaktov, who is noted as both a Symbolist and a Decadent. Elena Polenova and Mariia Yakunchikova drew illustrations with grotesque and supernatural themes, many of which appeared in the Symbolist magazine World of Art. Another Symbolist artist, Mikhail Vrubel, often painted demonic figures while yet another, Konstantin Somov, frequently returned to the theme of necromancy.

Some Symbolists, however, turned to Decadence only after becoming completely disillusioned with Symbolist promises of transcendence. Thus, when the Symbolists lost momentum around 1910, the Decadents gained strength. According to art historian John E. Bowlt, this point was marked by Blok’s poem The Stranger (1906) and Kuznetsov’s painting Night of the Consumptives (1907), both of which turned clearly towards a pessimistic view of the universe.

Lady in Pink, Somov (1903)

Also telling were “Fall Exhibition” and “Auer’s Commercial Exhibition,” both held in November of 1907. Erotic, demonic and necrological themes were on every canvas. Motifs of skulls, corpses, pink rivers, cemeteries and doves were also present. The artists (among whom were Kalmakov, Avgust Ballier and Andrei Dmitriev) had paired their artwork with quotations from or dedications to Symbolist writers like Bely, Briusov and Ivanov. For example, a drawing by Dmitriev was paired with this quote by Briusov: “Uncherished dreams fade in my heart, flowers of a ridiculed spring perish.” It was clearly the death of Symbolism in its idealist emanation. These paintings were intended to connect no one to any higher truth. If anything, they were to proclaim the lack of one.

Some Decadent artists painted undisguised erotica. Among them was Feofilaktov, who largely painted nude or nearly-nude women. His book 66 Drawings pulled together examples of this theme, and it was published in Moscow in 1909.

Extreme violence arose as a theme as well. Again, magazines played a major role in this exploration, as they allowed free reign to many against-the-grain creative impulses. The radical caricature journals of 1905-06 were of particular importance to this vein of the Decadent movement. Artists Brodsky, Sergei Chekhonin, Dobujinsky, Fechin, Anisfeld, and Boris Kustodiev in particular painted bloodbaths, monsters, corpses, cemeteries, snakes and chains. Within the context of the revolutionary magazine, the Decadent imagery was understood as a symbolic representation of societal evils, but the violent themes were also a way for the Decadents to play with social taboos. Between 1908 and 1920, Vasilii Masiutin sketched several grotesque and horrifying images, usually of violence, monsters and women. Nineteen of these are collected in his album Sin (Grekh) (1909), including Woman-Mask, Woman on a Beast, Woman with Tails, Life and Sickness.

Laziness from "Seven Deadly Sins," Masiutin

Briusov and Somov were among those who actually embraced the supposed lack of philosophy behind their artistic movement. For Somov, the most important tenet was individualism and in particular the individual nature of inspiration: “I am an individualist, the whole world revolves round me, and, essentially, it is no concern of mine to go outside the confines of this ‘I’.” His anti-philosophy philosophy did often stop to mock societal “norms” – in particular courtship and the conduct of women. Some examples are Lady in Pink (1903), Echo of Time Passed (1903), Lady Asleep in a Blue Dress (1903) and The Ridiculed Kiss (1908). The paradox here is that the artist, by painting commentaries on society, was apparently philosophizing without a philosophy.

The other side to “Decadence” is even more problematic. “Decadence,” when it is accused by someone – usually the proponent of another movement – is generally meant to describe a quality of degeneration towards meaninglessness. John E. Bowlt, in “Through the Glass Darkly,” drew from an 1898 article by Diaghilev in order to define Decadence as such at the turn of the century. The Symbolist had argued that the 19th century saw Decadents of Classicism, Romanticism and Realism. Thus, Diaghilev saw Decadence as a failed, basically-empty imitation of an original – in the style of something but without its corresponding meaning.

No matter how you define it, Decadence is still a highly subjective concept. The Symbolist groups at the turn of the century referred to the Realists of the 19th century as “Decadent.” Infighting within the Symbolist movement also resulted in accusations of “Decadence.” The term Decadent was used during the era of Soviet Realism broadly to indicate the inappropriate nature of a piece of artwork, while specifically the Symbolists were derided as Decadent  for having turned away from the artistic tradition of the Realists. Of course, there are many who would now call the Socialist Realists the true Decadents, considering the propagandic emptiness their artistic movement came to embody.

Source Material From:

GalleriX “Somov,” GalleriX “Storeroom,” “M. Yakunchikova,” Moskovskii Modern “E. Polenova,” Prints Museum “V. Masiutin”

“Through the Glass Darkly: Images of Decadence in Early Twentieth-Century Russian Art” by John E. Bowlt in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 17, No. 1, Decadence (Jan., 1982), pp. 93-110

“Idealism and Decadence in Russian Poetry” by Evelyn Bristol in  Slavic Review, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Jun., 1980), pp. 269-280.

About the author

Elizabeth Rogers

Elizabeth Everts Rogers has an undergraduate degree in International Studies from the University of Nebraska at Omaha and a master’s in European and Russian Studies from Yale University. She hails originally from Omaha, Nebraska.

Program attended: Home and Abroad Scholar

View all posts by: Elizabeth Rogers