The twilight of Imperial Russia witnessed a sudden renaissance of the visual, literary, and performing arts, alongside the more exuberant pomp and circumstance of the court and high society. Here was a Silver Age, as it is known in Russia.
Much of this new energy was indebted to the movement known as Symbolism, which fell on fertile soil in Mother Russia. Seeking to transcend the conventional barriers of bourgeois civility, the Russian Symbolists lived and created on the edge, which often earned them the sobriquet of Decadent or Degenerate. But, as Sergei Diaghilev declared, theirs was not a moral or artistic decline, but a voyage of inner discovery and a refurbishing of a national culture.
Some of the individuals and institutions associated with the Russian Silver Age are well known—Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes, the painting and decoration of Alexandre Benois, Leon Bakst, and Mikhail Vrubel, the music of Igor Stravinsky, the dancing of Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky, the poetry of Aleksandr Blok and Anna Akhmatova—and are an integral part of international Modernism. But the mosaic of the Russian fin-de-siècle is much richer and more complex than these names alone would suggest. Moscow and St Petersburg 1900–1920 gives copious attention not only to the heroes, but also to less-familiar attainments, such as the painting of Nikolai Kalmakov, the free dance of the followers of Duncan and Dalcroze, the daring experiments in dramatic theater, the transformation of technology with the advent of mass communications and transportation, the role of the impresario, and the subtle interconnection of private lifestyle and public
Advancing in roughly chronological sequence, Moscow and St. Petersburg 1900–1920 develops themes and propositions and highlights essential social and political developments, which painting, poetry, music, and dance both refracted and affected. The book’s profuse illustrations include artistic images and vintage documentary photographs, many of which have not been published before.
John E. Bowlt is a specialist in Russian art history of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and has published widely on Symbolism, the avant-garde, and Socialist Realism. He studied at Moscow State University in 1966–68, and since then has continued teaching, lecturing, and publishing. Bowlt also curated or co-curated numerous exhibitions. He is currently a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.