Russia • 1870−1960
Alexandre Benois was a controversial figure. The Academy of Arts seemed to be too official to him. At first, the “new art” provoked indignation in him, later he tried to understand it; the opinions differed whether he succeeded in that. He was condemned for the refinement of the paintings and at the same time he collaborated with the Government of the Soviet Union. He painted portraits about the era of Paul I of Russia and Louis XIV of France (“who escaped to Versailles!”), but in the turbulent 1917-1920s he saved and collected the treasures of the Hermitage and the State Russian Museum.

Alexandre Benois was born in the family of a Russian nobleman of French origin, Nicholas Benois, (chief architect of Peterhof), and the daughter of Italian architect, Alberto Cavos, Camilla. A cult of arts reigned in the family. Alexandre’s elder brother, Albert, was a watercolorist, the other brother, Leonty - an architect. Both of them taught at the Academy of Fine Arts. His sister Catherine married the sculptor Eugene Lanceray. Her children, the artists Nikolai and Eugene Lanceray, and her daughter, the famous artist Zinaida Serebriakova, were nephews of Alexandre Benois.

Alexandre Benois was married to his sister-in-law. Basically, it happened that way when his brother Albert married Maria Kind, and their younger daughter, Anna, caught his attention. At the age of 15, he confessed his love for her. After a while, Albert and Maria divorced, and Alexandre and Atya, as she was called at home, stopped communicating, but they couldn’t resist it for long. Soon, they began to see each other again, and after graduating from the university, Alexandre Benois married Anna, who became his faithful girlfriend and beloved woman for a lifetime.

He entered the Academy of Fine Arts in 1887, and studied there for four months, which he subsequently thought of as a wasted time. Studying seemed boring to him, and the main result of that was the conclusion that painting could not be learned by just attending lectures. Thus, his academic art education came to an end, and Benois entered the faculty of law at Saint Petersburg State University.

He quitted attending the Academy of Fine Arts, but at the same time he became really interested in art. It turned out that he had a talent that was far from what he could combine with his main talent for painting: Alexandre Benois was very good at “talking about it”. It then became clear that he had a desire to instruct, share his knowledge and reveal the background of the artistic process. And what was more, he wanted to do it in order for others to want to be around, participate and “surround” him. Thus, the Benois Circle was organized, which included people who would have a considerable influence on Russian art in the following years, including the artist Leon Bakst. The members of the circle proclaimed the idols in the painting themselves, they were the German symbolists: Arnold Böcklin, Max Klinger, and Adolph von Menzel.

The matter was not limited to conversations. The career of an art critic Alexandre Benois began in 1894, when he wrote an article about Russian artists for the German collection of Richard Muther, “The History of 19th Century Painting”.

In 1896, Benois, together with Leon Bakst and Konstantin Somov, came to France, where he immersed himself in the study of the history of French art. An era of disappointment in realism began to prevail in society at that time, and Benois was trying to understand his attitude to the new painting style. He was attracted by the Impressionists Monet and Degas. But on the whole, he was put off by the incomprehensible tendencies. “Symbolists and decadents went bankrupt, they promised a bunch but gave some scrapes,” - Benois described his attitude to modernism that way.

It was well-known that Ilya Repin spoke commendably of Benois, noting that his watercolors were deep, fresh and strong. However, it was no less known that Repin, in general, was extremely supportive of aspiring artists at that time. Later, he would not have mercy on the representatives of the “new art”. David Burliuk even set Repin and Benois against each other in his manifesto “The Benois Brawlers and Modern Art of Russia”, claiming that Repin scolded and despised sincerely, while Benois tried to “praise”, trampling into the mud stealthily.

Benois became famous as an artist after two big periods: the Versailles one and the Russian one. His favorite thing to do was to, sort of, reconstruct historical subjects. The topics closest to Alexandre Benois were “St. Petersburg of the 18th – early 19th centuries” and “France – the age of Louis XIV”. They were revealed in the Versailles series in 1897 and in 1905-1906, and also in the paintings “Military Parade of Emperor Paul in Front of Mikhailovsky Castle”, “Peter the Great Thinking about the Construction of St. Petersburg” and many others. Benois was able to accurately reproduce the atmosphere and the style of the era.

In 1898, The Benois Circle published the first issue of “The World of Art” magazine. The magazine called for progress and renewal, but at the same time actively fought against mobility and modernism. In 1904, due to disagreement, the publication was called off. At that period Benois wrote “The History of the 19th Century Painting”. The primary goal of the book was the preservation of the traditions of Russian art. “It is not about searching for new things, but rather about building them from what has already been found,” - he formulated one of his principles as such. The important contribution to Russian painting made by Kiprensky, Venetsianov, Bakst and Somov was truly appreciated in the book. It was published in 1902 and caused the lively and mixed interest of contemporaries. Researchers noted the inconsistency of narration: Benois actively denied the programmatic nature of art, but at the same time he put forward the program settings for its evaluation.

In 1910, in St. Petersburg, Alexander Benois organized the society “The World of Art”. The first chairman was Nicholas Roerich. The special mission of Russian painting and ... utopian inclusiveness were denoted as the central aesthetic idea. There was a desire to “unite and reconcile” everyone. Unlike the magazine, the World of Art society did not put aside the fact of the existence of the new movements and young artists: at the exhibition the public could see the paintings by Goncharova and LarionovLentulov and SaryanPetrov-Vodkin and Konchalovsky. Benois, all of a sudden, discovered that there was not such a “daub”, for which he was repeatedly mentioned in the manifesto of Burliuk with reproaches for snake treachery. Of particular note was the radical change in Benois’ attitude to the work of Natalia Goncharova. If, at first, he made jokes of sarcastic nature addressed to her, then later on, he admitted that “Goncharova should not be taught by one, but one has to learn from her instead.”

Benois was a great illustrator. The “Alphabet in Pictures” by Alexandre Benois was widely known. He also illustrated two editions of “The Queen of Spades” written by Alexander Pushkin and three versions of “The Bronze Horseman”.

A gigantic revolutionary utopia was unfolding in the public eye, while in the cultural sphere the Soviet Union was failing to organize an aesthetic utopia in which there should have been a room for everyone. Breaking out of the captivity of oppression, modernism seized the reins of government, and later on it became worthless to be a realist. “Many gifted painters were ashamed of their realistic “ways”, hiding simple, healthy sketches from prying eyes and exposing only sketches of cubicle deformations of nature, newspaper label stickers and other nonsense,” Benois wrote about that period.

The artist had sympathy for the Bolsheviks, due to which he lost the favor of his former friends and colleagues. The new government drew him toward protection from vandalism of art treasures. Since 1918, Benois had been in charge of the art gallery in the Hermitage and selected things from private collections which were gathered in the palaces of Tsarskoye Selo and Peterhof, which had become folk paintings for museums. Largely, because of Benois, the Hermitage and the State Russian Museum had survived to the future generations.

In 1926, Benois left for France, where he held his first and last solo exhibition. It was not known, when he was leaving, whether he planned to no longer return to his homeland or made that decision in Paris. But his refined art was very far from the ideals of the revolution. Probably, he had already fulfilled his historical mission to preserve paintings for the Hermitage.

It is known that for the rest of his life Benois yearned for Russia. France never became his second homeland. “We are not at home,” he wrote painfully in his memoirs.

Author: Alena Esaulova
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