The Most Important Russian Artists in History

Wassily Kandinsky
Wassily Kandinsky | © pixelsniper / Flickr
Zita Whalley

Throughout history, Russia’s artists have proven themselves to be boundary-pushing pioneers and visionaries. In the pursuit of challenging and testing artistic conventions, these artists have left their imprint on the art world and influenced subsequent generations of creatives. Here are 8 artists who have redefined the art world.

Wassily Kandinsky 1866–1944

Lawyer-turned-artist, Kandinsky pioneered modern abstract art and recognised as painting the first purely abstract work. He saw painting as a spiritual activity, which communicated the artist’s inner world, with little relation to the physical realm. After leaving his successful legal career at the age of 30, he moved to Munich to retrain as an artist at the Academy of Fine Arts, and returned to Russia in 1914 during WWI. He then went on to teach at the renowned Bauhaus School in Germany, until the Nazis shut it down.

Composition 10, Kandinsky

Kazimir Malevich 1879 – 1935

As the founder of suprematism, a type of abstract art that was defined by geometric forms and a controlled use of colour, Malevich went on to inform the many artists who followed him in both Europe and Russia. Despite the use of geometric shapes in both suprematism and constructivism, Malevich believed his style of art served neither political nor religious agendas, and that it only existed in relation to itself. He also painted The Black Square, the highest selling piece of Russian art to date. Conceptually groundbreaking, the artwork represents Malevich’s intent to ditch reality entirely and to create a world made from shape and form.

Balck Square, Kazimir Malevich

Pavel Tchelitchew 1898–1957

A celebrated surrealist, Tchelitchew was a visual artist, as well as a set and costume designer. He is best known for his surrealist portraits and anatomical studies. Born into aristocracy, he and his family were forced to flee Russia during the revolution. He landed in Europe, living in Berlin, Paris and London, before resettling in America. He lived through two World Wars as well as the Soviet upheaval, and so his works were often dark and eerie and reflected the horrors he saw people inflict on one another.

El Lissitzky 1890–1941

Malevich’s apprentice and a key figure in the Russian avante-garde and constructivism, Lissitzky’s primarily worked in design and architecture. His work was deeply connected to the USSR’s political climate and he designed many of the USSR’s WWII propaganda posters. His work in graphics – his use of geometry and minimalism – would influence much of the 20th-century design thereafter. Along with Man Ray, he was one of the first artists to progress the use of photographs. He worked and taught in Europe and Moscow.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge, El Lissitzky 1919

Aleksander Rodchenko 1891 – 1956

One of the artists credited for pioneering constructivism, Rodchenko was a committed communist and an ardent supporter of the Russian Revolution. He started off as a fairly conventional artist, however, he became inspired by the artists around him who were already experimenting with form and concept. He abandoned painting altogether – declaring it dead – to focus on artistic function and form. He began to play with geometry and sculptural, 3-D works, eventually embracing photography.

Non-Objective Painting No. 80: Black on Black, Aleksandr Rodchenko, 1918

Lyubov Popova 1889–1924

Artist, designer, teacher and textile maker, Popova was an abstract artist who went on to significantly shape the Russian avante-garde, before her untimely death. She drew from many influences, especially Futurism, which she discovered on her travels and the geometric forms of cubism. Popova aligned herself with Malevich and his suprematism school of thought, and along with Rodchenko, was one of the founding artists of constructivism. During the Russian Revolution, she designed Red propaganda posters and textiles. Popova died at the peak of her career from scarlet fever, at just 35-years-old.

The Priest of Tarquin, Lubov Popova

Illya Replin 1844–1930

Replin is considered to be one of Russia’s greatest realists. He was one of the most prominent artists in Russia during the 19th century, when he was considered to be the Leo Tolstoy of visual arts. Most recently, his much-criticised and controversial painting of Ivan the Terrible was damaged by a drunk patron at a Moscow museum. It depicts the moment after the Tsar fatally struck his son and is wracked with anguish and despair. Acknowledged as Replin’s most intense painting, it has been said Ivan the Terrible’s eyes can drive a viewer to madness. The painting was banned from public display by Tsar Alexander III, making it the first painting subjected to censorship in the Empire.

‘Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on November 16th, 1581’ by Ilya Repin

Marc Chagall 1887 – 1985

Born in the region that is now Belarus, Chagall’s works were among the first that depicted a dream world, and he is recognised as one of the most eminent European modernists, despite wartime hardships and financial struggles. He moved to France to further his career, where he took inspiration from artists such as Chardin, Matisse and Van Gogh, and embraced the use of colour in his work. He returned to Russia during WWI, and remained there into the early days of the Soviet Union, where he went on to become a part of the avante-garde scene. After Soviet life proved to be too much of a struggle, he relocated back to Europe. After a period of time spent in the US while escaping the Holocaust, he eventually returned to France.

The Blue Roster, Marc Chagall

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