Siberia Classes‎ > ‎

Artists in Siberia

Gerald E. Mikkelson 
Professor of Russian Language, Literature and Culture (MA and PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison) 
Russian language and literature, Pushkin, 20th century, Siberia, St. Petersburg

Use the links below to view many of the works discussed in class:

What kinds of records do we have to study Siberia? Archeological, written, visual-- but for most of the history of Siberia we didn’t have photography, so artists give us the visual record. Music gives us an audio record. 

The two artists whom we will discuss in detail are;
Nikolay Roerich 1874-1974
Vasiily Surikov 1848-1916

The name "Roerich" is originally assumed to be Scandinavian, probably from the time of Peter the Great when Russia expanded. Nikoay was born in 1874. His father was a lawyer and wanted his son to be lawyer as well. But Nikolay discovered during his time in gymnasium that he had a primary interest in science (archeology) and visual arts. He spent summers on archeological teams in European Russia and then went to university; he wanted to attend the art institute in St. Petersburg but compromised with his father and entered simultaneously the academy of arts and law school. He graduated from both at same time and began a career as an artist. His great passion was to travel to remote parts of Asia. His wife and sons traveled with him to India, Kashmir, the Himilayans. He created an institute. Roerich was interested in antiquities and traveled through the South and Central Asian mountains, which was his passion. His art had an emphasis on color rather than realism. "Santana" showed man who has chosen to isolate himself from materialism in everyday social life click here. Roerich was Russian Orthodox but became attracted to Buddhism. He often painted scenes of mountains with one or two lone figures who are wanders or hunters or warriors (for example, Genghis Khan alone looking over mountains click here). During one period at the end of his longest tour of India he made his way into Altai. Roerich was living in Finland (part of Russian empire at the time) for health reasons. When the revolution took place Russia shed Finland and Roerich found himself in an independent country. The borders were closed during the civil war, Germans moved into Finland, and Roerich never got back to Petrograd/Leningrad. He spent most of the time in European countries or in Central and southern Asia, but he always wanted to get to Siberia and always dreamed of visiting Mount Belukha (in Altai), which is the highest mountain in Siberia. It is regarded as a sacred mountain and he wanted to visit it, but had difficulty getting a visa. 

Surikov was born in Krasnoyarsk, located on the Yenisey River in Siberia. This river is considered to be the dividing line between western and central Siberia. Krasnoyarsk is near the southern end. He began his career as a portrait and landscape painter and went to the academy of arts in St. Petersburg. He was older than Roerich (was in fact one of his professors). Surikov painted depictions of scenes from Russian history. He was most famous for large canvasses of crucial events in Russian history. Several are about Siberia. One was Yermak conquering Siberia. Yermak was a Russian Cossack who  had to cross the Irtysch River to get to western Siberia. On the other side of the river he faced the western Siberia tartars whose leader (khan) was Khan Kuchum. Yemak is a mythic hero for Russians, not of indigenous peoples (like Christopher Columbus). Surikov also painted a famous picture of the persecution of a leader of the Old Belivers The Boyarynia Morozova. Strelets streltsi (from verb to shoot) militias rebelled against Peter the Great, the uprising was ruthlessly put down, and many wound up in Siberia. The Morning of the Execution of the Streltsi click here. Many of them were Old Believers. Minchikov had a bigger palace than Peter, who often used it for state functions. But the successors after Peter exiled Minchikov to  Beryozov (Берёзов) in Tobolsk Governorate. Menshikov in Berezovo click here Surikov died before the revolution. When he graduated from the academy of arts he wanted to go to Europe, but was not allowed to because he was associated in the minds of professors with those who were oppositionists. Although he didn’t get a chance to go to Europe, he was not later persecuted, and was relatively wealthy when died in 1916.