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Regular version of the site

Article

Picturing the Russian National Past in the Early 19th Century

Jahrbucher fur Geschichte Osteuropas. 2012. No. 4. P. 489-509.

The article reconstructs the circumstances of adopting the first artistic conventions that allowed Russian artists at the beginning of the nineteenth century to create their first versions of the national past. The origin of new visual symbols such as national heroes, costumes, and typical ethnic looks is dated and their semantics deciphered based on the analysis of such sources as notes describing the motifs to be pictured in history paintings as well as patriotic press publications and pieces of history painting and sculpture. Their reception by the public and the complications of their subsequent verbal conceptualization are presented within the context of a controversy between the publishers of two art journals of the 1820s, Paul Svinyin and Vasily Grigorovich.
Vishlenkova believes that the priority of visual language in the Russian national project had to do with the specific cultural situation of the Russian Empire, particularly at the turn of the nineteenth century. A low literacy rate meant that Russian elites could not rely on verbal language as a tool for mobilizing support and generating imperial, ethnic, and national solidarities. That's why students of nationalism find no convincing written evidence of a Russian national consciousness either in the eighteenth century or in the first three decades of the nineteenth. In contrast to their unsuccessful efforts, Vishlenkova’s analysis of the visual language of describing the past detects elements of the national imagination of the time at issue. The author defines the 1830s as a turning point in the evolution of Russian ways to see the national past: the convention between the artists and their audience changed, resulting in a substitution of document-based symbols for symbolic representations of the Russian past. This convention revision antiquated the early nineteenth century history paintings, and rendered the signs of the national employed in them incomprehensible.