From 15 December 2007 to 6 April 2008, the Groninger Museum presented the large-scale exhibition entitled Russian Legends, Folk Tales and Fairy Tales. The highlights of this exhibition were the many paintings by the nineteenth-century artists Victor Vasnetsov and Nikolas Roerich, and the illustrations by Ivan Bilibin and Elena Polenova.
After the successful exhibition Ilya Repin, Russia’s Secret in 2001, Russian Landscape in 2003, and Working for Diaghilev in 2004, there was yet another important theme that has remained underexposed in the overwhelming and multi-faceted range of Russian art from the nineteenth century: Russian Legends, Folk Tales and Fairy Tales.
Although fairy tales and folk tales had been an integral part of folklore for hundreds of years, they only became a fully-fledged theme within the visual arts in the nineteenth century. Interest in Russian legends and folk tales began to flourish in this period, originating from a yearning to reach back to a tradition that was able to express the true essence of Russia. This quest for Russian tradition was unique and led to a very specific style in Russian painting, of which Victor Vasnetsov was one of the most important representatives.
Toward the end of the 19th century, the paintings by Victor Vasnetsov and the illustrations by Bilibin – which were created a little later but were certainly equally renowned – opened up a completely new world. In this imaginary, magical realm, themes from Russian history, legends and literature were combined with techniques from national, folkloristic tradition as well as new developments in the visual arts in the 19th century.
When Russian artists seized upon these themes and opted to represent them on large-format canvas, they united the reality of the Russian countryside with the imaginary world of the fairy tale. It is this combination of faithfully reproduced reality and an imaginative, enchanted situation – painted in a format that was normally reserved for important themes from history – that ensured that these paintings left a lasting impression upon the viewer.
The struggle between good and evil, which resounds through most folk tales, also occurs in the paintings. Nevertheless, these paintings were also occasionally created for completely different purposes than the literal representation of the narrative. For example, the painting entitled The Flying Carpet by Victor Vasnetsov was commissioned by Savva Mamontov, a powerful patron of the arts, to cover the wall of a new railway station. As such, the large format is immediately explained, but this commission simultaneously gave a new dimension to the work. The Flying Carpet suddenly became a symbol for a flight to the new world, future prosperity, and perhaps even freedom of spirit. The imaginative power of the narrative as an instrument for a social message ensures that these paintings cannot be viewed solely as belonging to the magical realm of fantasy. Other important works by Vasnetsov include: Ivan Tsarevitch on the Grey Wolf and Horseman at the Crossroads. These works are now icons of nineteenth-century Russian painting. Nikolas Roerich was primarily interested in Slavonic heroics, Scandinavian sagas, and religious myths from medieval Russia. In his work, he tried to evoke, in colourful patterns, a bygone world in which people lived in harmony with one another and with nature.
This part of the exhibition was closely linked to the literature and the folk tales themselves. The prints were an important feature of the exhibition, in view of the fact that fairy tales, folk tales and legends first entered the visual arts in the form of illustrations. In this section, Ivan Bilibin plays a major role. He produced unique and very personal illustrations that can be regarded as highlights in the history of Russian art, right down to the present day. They transcend the boundaries of pure illustration. The art of Bilibin and of Vasnetsov displays a clear mutual kinship.
Elena Polenova was another important illustrator. She studied the sources of the folk tales in order to gain a better understanding of that world. She also travelled through the Province of Kostroma in order to record the verbal folklore there.
The association with literature
Before the theme of folk tales and legends had been accepted in the visual arts, it had already captured a recognized position within literature. Accordingly, the exhibition will devote attention to the narrative itself, and the part of the tale that is expressed in the painting will be told.
The author Alexander Pushkin illustrated his own tales in the 1830s, and the tales of Pushkin remained popular as a literary theme among artists, illustrators and composers throughout the entire nineteenth century. In this way, folk tales and legends became a source of inspiration, containing both poetic imagination and historically authentic information. They led to the generation of detailed ‘literary’ representations.
In contrast to the 20th century and our own age, the fairy tale books of the 19th century were not intended only for children but also for adults, who were capable of fully appreciating and understanding the graphic realization of the illustrations and the pleasantly odd world conceived by the artist.