Mstislav Dobuzhinsky (1875, Novgorod - 1957, New York, USA) was a great Russian graphic and theatre artist. Born into the family of an officer, he graduated from high school in Vilna (now Vilnius). He studied in St. Petersburg at the Drawing School of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts (1885—1887), at the school of Anton Ažbe and under Simon Hollósy (Munich, 1899—1901). A member of the Mir Iskusstva association, since 1902 he participated in various exhibitions. He taught in St. Petersburg at private art schools, since 1922 he was a professor at the Academy of Arts in Petrograd. He worked in easel and book graphics (designed the Mir Iskusstva, Zolotoe Runo, Apollo magazines). He designed theatrical performances of the Moscow Art Theatre (A Month in the Country by I. S. Turgenev, 1909; Nikolai Stavrogin after F. M. Dostoevsky, 1913), enterprises by S. P. Diaghilev, etc. In 1924, Dobuzhinsky followed the advice of Jurgis Baltrusaitis and withdrew to Lithuania. He was naturalized there in 1924. In 1925, he worked for the Riga Theatre, from 1926 to 1929 for the Nikita Balieff’s La Chauve-Souris Parisian theatre. Since 1929, Dobuzhinsky has been a leading artist of the Lithuanian State Theater (Kaunas). He taught at a private art school, worked in Lithuanian publications. In 1935, he left for England with the troupe of the Kaunas theatre. From 1939, he lived and worked in the USA.
Mstislav Dobuzhinsky belongs to the remarkable galaxy of artists who united around the Mir Iskusstva Association in the late 19th — early 20th centuries. As a graphic and theatre artist, Dobuzhinsky occupied one of the significant places in this group.
Dobuzhinsky was born on 2 August 1875 in Novgorod. His father was an artillery officer, who later received the rank of general, his mother, after graduating from the St. Petersburg Conservatory, became an opera singer in provincial theatres.
The artist spent his childhood in St. Petersburg, where his abilities first appeared. His father played an important role in his artistic evolution, he himself painted well. He taught his son to illustrate what he read, while the Dobuzhinsky’s library was quite extensive. The boy was especially interested in history books. Gradually, drawing turned from a child’s lesson into a hobby, and even before entering the gymnasium, Dobuzhinsky attended drawing classes of the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts for two winters.
Due to the nature of the father’s service, the family had to move quite often. Alternately, the place of their residence was Chisinau, Vilnius, the Tambov Province, the Volga and the environs of St. Petersburg. The young artist drew a lot, his observation developed. In 1895, Dobuzhinsky began his studies at the law faculty of St. Petersburg University and then made an attempt to enter the Academy of Arts. Although the drawings of the young artist had been noted by Ilya Repin, Dobuzhinsky was not admitted to the Academy. Studying at the University, he learnt the history of art independently and attended the private studio of Dmitriev-Kavkazsky, his drawings appeared in student magazines. The first trips abroad to Germany and Switzerland also occurred in the same years. Dobuzhinsky decided to study abroad and, after graduating from university in 1899, went to Munich, which, along with Paris, was then the largest artistic centre in Europe. Dobuzhinsky studied at the famous school of Ažbe, then moved to Hollósy’s studio. Many Russian artists have gone the same way: I. E. Grabar, N. D. Kardovsky, A. I. Kravchenko, V. V. Favorsky, O. E. Braz, H. I. Narbut and others; many of them honed their professional skills in Munich studios sooner or later.
The early graphic tendencies of Dobuzhinsky’s talent were soon noticed and, upon his return to Russia, in 1901, on Grabar’s advice he took on etching under V. V. Mate, the professor of the Academy of Arts. However, these studies were interrupted, and Dobuzhinsky returned to engraving only in 1918.
Since 1901, Dobuzhinsky has been a member of Mir Iskusstva. By this time the association had passed a difficult organizational period; Dobuzhinsky turned out to be the youngest and least experienced member artist. But already the first performances brought him fame. This period of Dobuzhinsky’s creativity mostly featured urban landscapes: views of Vilna, Tambov, Novgorod, Rostov-on-Don and, of course, St. Petersburg. Dobuzhinsky performed a series of architecture drawings of St. Petersburg in the 18th — early 19th centuries for open letters issued by the Saint Eugenia Community. In other landscapes of Dobuzhinsky, a different side of the Russian capital is emphasized: dark well-courtyards with the soulless symmetry of blind windows hide behind the shiny façades, instead of picturesque colonnades and porticos, blank firewalls are visible from the street. Petersburg in these drawings has a generalized image of a capitalist city and Dobuzhinsky is called “the artist of the city”. Man with Spectacles (1906, Tretyakov Gallery) is one of the artist’s most outspoken statements about his contemporary. A man is standing against the background of a window, behind which the cityscape is visible. The face is impenetrable, his posture is motionless, but inner concentration, isolation and loneliness can be felt.
The public spirit of Dobuzhinsky’s art was clearly expressed during the events of the revolution of 1905—1907. The artist made a series of harsh political cartoons in the Zhupel and Adskaya Pochta magazines. The Pacification drawing was particularly expressive, it depicted Moscow flooded with blood. At this time, Dobuzhinsky with a group of figures from the Mir Iskusstva took part in the organization of satirical magazines and appeared in print with an appeal to artists, urging them to work for the people.
In the 1910s, the artist often travelled abroad: to the Scandinavian countries, Germany, Italy. He still painted cityscapes. In Amsterdam, Dobuzhinsky created a sketch titled Peter the Great in Holland (1910), which echoed the Peter I painting by V. Serov.
The originality of Dobuzhinsky’s talent was especially evident in his The Provinces of the 1930s painting (1907—1909), which was consonant with Gogol’s “Dead Souls”. In this work of the artist, a remote province, a lonely Russia in Nicholas’s time.
A large place in the work of Dobuzhinsky was occupied by his work in the theatre, which bega in 1907. The connection with the Moscow Art Theatre was quite fruitful for him, the artist designed twelve performances there. In 1909, he performed one of his best theatrical works, the scenery for the A Month in the Country play by Ivan Turgenev, directed by K. S. Stanislavsky. With his brilliant knowledge of everyday life, with his gentle sense of the scene, the artist recreated the leisurely rhythm of life of the noble nest. In the scenery for the staging of Dostoevsky’s Demons novel, Dobuzhinsky emphasized the drama and intensity of the images created by the writer.
Dobuzhinsky left pencil portraits of Stanislavsky and the artists of his theatre, which are distinguished by their psychological acuity. Working with Stanislavsky gave the artist a lot, and their creative relationship continued for many years. “It is difficult to wish for the best painter”, this is how the director spoke about Dobuzhinsky.
Dobuzhinsky worked a lot and fruitfully in book graphics. His pen illustrations for S. Auslander’s story “The Night Prince” (1909) subtly convey the fragility and semi-fantastic nature of the plot. Gradually, Dobuzhinsky’s illustrations became more contrasting, the role of the spot intensified. In the drawings for “The Young Lady Peasant” (1919), the artist used the fascination with the silhouette, characteristic of Pushkin’s time. The book is conceived by Dobuzhinsky as an organic combination of all graphic elements, subordinate to a single concept, a single emotional mood. These features also appeared in one of the artist’s best works, the design of Andersen’s The Swineherd fairy tale (1917). Dobuzhinsky paid great attention to small forms of book graphics. His initial caps, headpieces, fonts, publishing stamps and bookplates are distinguished by their originality of design, virtuosity, and mastery of execution.
He met the revolution as a mature artist, known at home and abroad. Dobuzhinsky actively participated in the design of the first revolutionary festivals, worked in theatres, taught. He released an album of lithographs called Petrograd in 1921, presenting the city as harsh and cold during this difficult time.
Dobuzhinsky’s illustrations for F. M. Dostoevsky’s White Nights novel (1923) occupied a prominent place in Russian graphics. The landscapes of St. Petersburg were painted especially delicately. They convey the mood of Dostoevsky’s story, help to feel the loneliness and purity of the characters’ feelings. With the poor means of pen drawing, Dobuzhinsky conveyed the ghostly glow of the sky, its reflection on the cobblestones — the classic harmony of black and white, subtle calculation and sincere feelings of the artist.
In 1924, Dobuzhinsky left for the homeland of his ancestors, Lithuania. Since then, his creative successes have been associated with the theatre. During these years, Dobuzhinsky designed more than seventy performances. The best of them are Russian and European classics: The Queen of Spades and Eugene Onegin by P. Tchaikovsky, Boris Godunov by M. P. Mussorgsky, Don Juan by W.-A. Mozart, Hamlet and King Lear by Shakespeare. In 1927, Dobuzhinsky completed the design sketches for Gogol’s The Government Inspector. In this work, the artist returned to his familiar theme: the province of the 1830s, although this time the soft humour was replaced by satire and grotesque.
As a book artist, Dobuzhinsky was attracted by the new Soviet literature as well: in 1929, he illustrated The Three Fat Men by Yury Olesha.
Since 1939, Dobuzhinsky had been working in America at the M. P. Chekhov theatre. He designed the operas by Mussorgsky and Prokofiev originally and skilfully during this period. In 1941, Dobuzhinsky and the outstanding Russian choreographer M. Fokin, staged the Russian Soldier ballet with a dedication: “To Brave Russian soldiers of the Second World War”. M. P. Fokin, who was associated with the artist through their long-term work in Diaghilev’s enterprise, wrote a libretto based on the Lieutenant Kijé story by K. N. Tynyanov and used the music by Prokofiev for the ballet. A year later, the artist wrote a libretto for the ballet to the music of Shostakovich’s Seventh (Leningrad) Symphony, made sketches of scenery for the ballet, as well as fantasy illustrations for Shostakovich’s music. In recent years, Dobuzhinsky has returned to the image of the city, which has long inspired his art. Dobuzhinsky died in 1957.
From "50 biographies of the masters of Russian art." Aurora publishing house, 1970. p. 243