Some years have passed since my book was published in Russian. At last, it is coming out in English. I say “at last,” because the poor knowledge of the Russian language continues to be a stumbling block in interpreting every ramification of Russian culture. I hope my book will serve not only as the record of a major event in the history of world art, but as an introduction to the study of Russian painting and traditional Russian artistic culture that will engage both specialists and ordinary readers.
It seems to be common knowledge that Russian art originated many centuries ago and that despite its periods of rise and fall it has created many great works. Interest in medieval Russian painting as an art form rather than as an object of religious practice arose in relatively recent times. In fact, its discovery is an event of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with practical work peaking in the 1910s and 1920s. Consequently, we are right to consider ourselves involved in the process.
The task of writing a history of this process struck me as both useful and not too arduous, but gradually delving into the matter, searching for evidence, and putting it in a systematic form proved to be more complicated than expected. The perusal of sources revealed a good deal of evidence vital to the modern researcher, but work on this material threatened somehow to compromise the original idea for, collected together by subject headings, it would acquire a value of its own. I had to limit myself to the most important points, and my book is therefore only a general essay bringing out the most vivid figures and the most significant discoveries; details of scholarship and practical aspects of saving old frescoes and icons, although interesting when taken separately, form the background, adding to the integrity of the picture.
I interpret the discovery of medieval Russian painting as a twofold phenomenon. On the one hand, it was the appreciation and study of a new, hitherto little-known artistic heritage, undertaken at first by a small group of scholars, professional restorers, collectors, artists, and art critics who were drawn to the moving beauty of an ancient art. On the other hand, this discovery was also a continuing process of research and growing awareness. It was not until many icons and frescoes had been rid of over-paintings and clumsy restorations that those interested in the history of Russia’s artistic past received enough reliable and complete evidence to judge it soundly. Under layers of paint, dried-out oil, and soot were hidden real masterpieces created by artists from the eleventh to the seventeenth century. All, or nearly all, that had been written about medieval Russian art before the real thing was revealed turned out to be a weak pastiche or incorrect interpretation. Once the authentic originals became accessible, a new field of scholarly study opened up, and the foundations were laid for a proper understanding and interpretation of medieval Russian art.
This book is the first special investigation devoted to the subject. I should mention here similar books written for other fields, in particular, The History of Russian Ethnography by A. N. Pypin (Istoriia russkoi etnografii, 1890); The History of Slavonic Philology by I. V. Yagich (Istoriia slavianskoi filologii, 1910); and The Introduction to Archaeology by S. A. Zhebelev (Vvedenie v arkheologiiu, 1923). The last work is brief, and refers to some of the same personalities who are mentioned here. There is no doubt that Russian scholars have sought to evaluate the current status of their respective fields by examining what had been achieved in the past, but nothing of that kind has been done in the field of medieval Russian art, and so my book partly fills this gap. Nor did I want to narrow the scope of my investigation by limiting it to the study of painting alone; this book deals with Russian art in general and, quite often, with the art of Byzantium and the Southern Slavs, which is introduced as it sets in relief the activity of Russian scholars. The data may be incomplete, and various omissions are possible.
As originally conceived, The History of the Discovery and Study of Russian Medieval Painting would have an essay on the nineteenth century as an introduction to the principal text on the period from the early twentieth century to the post-revolutionary years. When I was working on this plan, I proceeded from a strong and long-standing common conviction that medieval Russian painting had been discovered only in our time. However, this opinion is erroneous. Without the enormous preliminary work of the nineteenth century it would have been impossible to make the magnificent discoveries of the early twentieth century, which were publicized in various articles and essays devoted to the history of Russian fine arts. The nation forged its spiritual values in complex historical conditions, in collisions of different social and individual forces, but eventually these values became a fact of public self-awareness long before a systematic scholarly discovery of medieval Russian painting. What I had conceived as an introduction grew into an independent research, and I can now state with confidence that the nineteenth century was as important a period in the history of the discovery and study of medieval Russian art as the twentieth century itself.
Specialist readers will notice that I do not often refer to the written sources. This does not indicate my reluctance to work with archives. In fact, manuscripts add but little to the published matter. The data available provide such a solid basis for studying the subject at hand that it would be a waste of time and effort to dust off archival material to dig out information that would end up in notes or appendices. Hundreds of publications, articles, books, notes, and reports, which are cited in the book’s notes, testify amply that those involved in the process during the nineteenth century had done all they could to enable twentieth-century scholars to recognize their work and to evaluate justly its contribution to the history of Russian culture.
As with any historiographical work of this kind, this volume depended on the many articles and notes on the subject published by my predecessors. However, this is material of diverse value. Almost every paper cited has certain drawbacks that arise from a tendentious presentation of facts or an incompleteness of sources. This becomes evident when comparing articles written by different authors who look at the same subject from different points of view.
In addition, there are cases when knotty and complicated questions (not reflected in other publications) prevent me from understanding a particular problem well enough to describe objectively an historical event. Whenever possible, I have checked the reliability of the evidence supplied and have provided exhaustive documentation.
There is only one work published on the subject close to the sphere of my interest, and it is an important study: The History of the Study of Byzantine and Medieval Russian Art in Russia: F. I. Buslaev, N. P. Kondakov: Methods, Idea, Theories (Istoriia izucheniia vizantiiskogo i drevnerusskogo iskusstva v Rossii. F. I. Buslaev, N. P. Kondakov: metody, idei, teorii, 1985) by I. L. Kyzlasova. The scope of this work is limited, as suggested by its subtitle, which shows that it is devoted to elucidating the methods of only two scholars — F. I. Buslaev and N. P. Kondakov. Despite the obvious impact that those prominent researchers had on both their contemporaries and scholars of the next generation, neither Buslaev’s nor Kondakov’s methods explain all the phenomena of Russian artistic and public life, nor do they provide enough material for conducting an historical study. In this respect, my work gives a much more detailed description of the subject. Whether I have succeeded in sorting out the turmoil of nineteenth-century ideas, and shaping the scholarly and artistic thoughts into a strictly coherent whole without losing sight of the main historical line, is another matter. It is, of course, for the reader, not the author, to make a final judgment.