Vasnetsov at the Academy of Arts in the 1920s

In contemporary art critique, Yuri Vasnetsov is sometimes mentioned, dismissively, as a "Lubok painter", or creator of popular prints. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Much in the story of Vasnetsov’s life and work is explained by his schooling years and the contemporary art context in which Vasnetsov’s name and the merits of his art loom large, for he never painted for children only.

Exactly one hundred years ago, in 1921, Yuri Vasnetsov travelled to St. Petersburg, then named Petrograd, in the hope of enrolling in the Academy of Fine Arts. He had a letter of recommendation from Vyatka-based architect Ivan Charushin, who wrote: "He [Vasnetsov] brought this canvas bag packed with the sketches, watercolours, and oils he wanted to show me". Vasnetsov failed trigonometry on his admission tests and did not enrol that year. Now he had to make a living somehow in the starving Petrograd. "It was hard. People were starving all around. I barely survived, I was about to give up and leave". Vasnetsov was finally admitted and his student life began. The experience of being an art student in Petrograd at that time was unique.

The Free Studios opened under the Academy’s auspices were truly free in those years, with everyone searching, experimenting, breaking rules in art and in teaching, and making some new ones. There was no single unimpeachable system of standards, no single school or universal curriculum. Every art teacher taught his own way, which was exactly what they wanted to teach and how.

The learning process was administered, in rotation, by teachers representing vastly different art trends, some of them irreconcilably in conflict with each other. On the other hand, the old school professors -- heirs to the classical tradition -- were still around. One was Petrov-Vodkin, propounding his own system of local colour. Vasnetsov painted blue squares, red cones, and yellow cylinders in succession in an effort to master Petrov-Vodkin's trichromatic system.

Some of the professors teaching at the Free Studios were proponents of a radical rejuvenation of art. Many of them sought to integrate contemporary scientific achievements in their works. Mikhail Matyushin, for instance, studied Ivan Pavlov’s work in the field of human psychophysical perception of reality. He strove to teach his students a different art vision, where the observer contemplates the entirety of the observed rather than individual details. Matyushin’s own colour theory invoked the psychological aspects of creative work. Those of Vasnetsov’s friends who studied under Matyushin informed him about the professor’s experiments with colour, and Vasnetsov was very impressed.

Filonov, who also briefly taught at the Academy, wrote: "Work not as a pupil, but as a master…
Commit fully, and make a real painting". This rhymes surprisingly well with what Vasnetsov himself would later say about the creative process. He, too, appreciated how "real" a painting was.

Later, Vasnetsov studied under the great Malevich at the State Institute of Art Culture (GINKhUK). "You couldn’t just paint, you had to create your composition. There had to be the honing of the eye, of form, of structure all the time. It was enjoyable to strive for materiality and textural richness in objects and colours. You had to see colour". That period and Malevich’s role deserve to be written about separately and at a greater length.

Vasnetsov’s Academy years were spent in an atmosphere of relentless experiment. The Academy was abuzz with new ideas. People were arguing in every place you looked: in the studios and in the residence halls. Even citywide art debates were staged. Every artist advocated their own art theory.

In this vortex of most variegated ideas, it was a challenge to discern the kernels of kinship you could learn from to keep blazing your own, very own trail in art.