The “Dilettantism” of Savva Mamontov in Russian Art

In: Experiment

Abstract

This article examines questions related to dilettantism, typically defined in negative terms as engagement in an activity without proper professional training. However, this concept can also prompt a positive association, connoting freedom from inertia, ossified techniques, and professional stereotypes and clichés. The present article contends that dilettantism is especially necessary in transitional periods of art history. At such moments, innovations may arise more readily in intimate and amateur circles, rather than in professional contexts. Such a circle developed in the 1870s-90s among the community of artists who gathered around the prominent industrialist and philanthropist Savva Mamontov, a man of diverse talents, who astutely intuited new trends in art. This group of artists came to be known as the Abramtsevo artistic circle, after the name of Mamontov’s country estate located just outside of Moscow, where the vast majority of their artistic activities took place.

In Abramtsevo’s informal, creative atmosphere ideas for new aesthetic projects spontaneously materialized across a range of different artistic spheres—theater, architecture, decorative, and applied arts—in which members of the circle were essentially amateurs. But it is precisely in these areas that the artists would make their most significant contributions. Thus, the first seeds of a novel understanding of theatrical production as a single immersive entity were initially sown on the amateur stage of the Abramtsevo estate and subsequently fully blossomed in Mamontov’s Private Opera (1885-91; 1896-99), which played a foundational role in the development of Russian musical theater. The Church of the Spas nerukotvornyi [Savior Not Made by Human Hands], built by members of the Abramtsevo circle (1881-82), became the first exemplar of the Neo-Russian style in the history of Russian architecture, an important constituent of stil modern or Russian Art Nouveau. The activities of the kustar workshops in Abramtsevo—the carpentry workshop (1885) and the Abramtsevo ceramic studio (1890)—made a significant contribution to the development of the applied arts and industrial design in Russia, leading to their “rebirth” on a national level.

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