Mikhail Alexandrovich Vrubel (5 (17) March 1856, Omsk - 1 (14) April 1910, St. Petersburg) was a Russian artist whose original art, which was close to Art Nouveau style, combined bright decorative forms with dramatic, tragic content, and visual luxury - with gloomy, disturbing moods prevailing in his paintings and drawings.
Features of the artist Mikhail Vrubel: a brilliant colorist (the poet Blok spoke about the “struggle of gold and blue” in his paintings), Vrubel was also an unsurpassed draftsman (in the illustrations for Lermontov and in other graphic arts he achieved “black and white beauty”); he was interested in monumental painting (he made sketches for frescoes of the Vladimir Cathedral in Kiev, also he wrote large panels with mythological scenes), and arts and crafts (among the works by Vrubel are majolica sculptures, stove tiles, ceramic vases, sketches of theatrical costumes and scenery, interior design and even architectural solutions).
Mikhail Vrubel lived the way he painted: fast, brightly, by “large strokes”, intriguing his “viewers” and causing them a sense of impending catastrophe. He wounded himself to soften the pain of unrequited love. He drank a lot and was always broke. He walked around Kiev wearing short pantaloons and stockings. He loudly stated that Repin did not know how to paint. People in his circle got used to his quirks a long time ago. When Vrubel got seized with insanity - not creative, but what requires the intervention of doctors - not everyone noticed a change in him. Anyway, not immediately.
The demon risen
Mikhail Alexandrovich Vrubel was born in Omsk, where his father - a military lawyer - served as a staff adjutant of the Separate Siberian Corps. Mikhail's mother died of consumption, when he was 3 years old. Alexander Vrubel raised his children with Elizabeth Wessel, who became their stepmother.
Mikhail was a weak child. He began to walk only at the age of three. He avoided outdoor games and exercises or any physical efforts in general. It was his stepmother who put him on his feet, she forced the boy to follow the regimen, as well as a diet “of raw meat and fish oil”. Another undoubted contribution of his stepmother to the fate and personality of Mikhail Vrubel was music. Every lady from a decent family should have played the piano at that time. However, Elizabeth Wessel, according to contemporaries, indeed, was an outstanding performer. Children could watch her play for hours. They liked looking at her: at her ringed, fluttering fingers, at the light wrists in the brilliance of bracelets. It must have been somewhere there for a young Vrubel where things fused into one whole form and content, image and scenery, magic and gilded trinkets. Somewhere there the aesthetic ideas of the artist were born, and Vrubel one day said: “Everything is decorative and only decorative!”
He was on good terms with his stepmother, however, without much warmth. He was very close to his sister Anna (they called Elizabeth Wessel, not without a friendly ridicule, “the wonderful Madrynka - the pearl of mothers”).
Because of the service of his father, the Vrubel family was always on the road. And wherever they went, they always had books with them: Mikhail was surrounded with books from infancy, including many old, luxuriously illustrated editions. In the books (as well as in the favorite magazine "Picturesque Review"), a gifted, over-the-years-developed young man looked for the plots for home productions, in which he appeared either as a fearless traveler, or as a noble pirate.
When the Vrubels lived in Saratov, the ten-year-old Mikhail had the first fan — the daughter of the writer Daniil Mordovtsev, a family friend. Later in her memoirs, Vera Mordovtseva wrote that she was fascinated by the boy - his rich imagination, pleasant appearance, and the fact that “he had a lot of softness and tenderness by nature, and something feminine”.
Mikhail’s talent for painting manifested pretty early. When he was nine, he and his father went to look at a copy of Michelangelo's “Last Judgment”, and when they came back home, Mikhail reproduced it from memory. His father was not against the young man developing his talent - Mikhail Vrubel was taught by private teachers, later he attended art schools as a volunteer. However, painting was only a hobby in his life for a long time.
In 1867, Mikhail Vrubel entered the Fifth City Gymnasium in St. Petersburg, a progressive institution where, along with in-depth study of ancient languages, there were dance and gymnastics lessons. The boy continued to study painting at the Society for the Promotion of Arts. In the 1870s, his father received an appointment to Odessa, and 14-year-old Mikhail entered the famous Richelieu Lyceum (by that time already transformed into the Imperial University of Novorossiysk). Studying was easy for Vrubel, he always aced the exams and was always the first in his class. In a letter to his sister (who had gone to study in St. Petersburg), he complained that he got into all sorts of trouble during the holidays. Instead of translating the Roman classics and reading "Faust" in the original (as planned), the young man copied Aivazovsky – he truly was a daredevil. Despite such exciting adventures, the life in Odessa was dragging him down. “A thousand, a thousand times I envy you, my dear Annie, that you are in St. Petersburg: do you understand, madam, what this means ... for a man who creeps in the salt-rich steppes of Scythia or, more simply, lives in the city of Odessa,” Vrubel wrote to his sister.
After graduating from high school with a gold medal, Mikhail Vrubel went to St. Petersburg University to study law. That city immediately took the young man in hand and surrounded with temptations. His passion for theater, as well as the awakened thirst for highly extravagant outfits, demanded money, and Vrubel earned money by private lessons — first and foremost, brilliant knowledge of Latin became useful. That way - as a tutor of one of his fellow students - he got into the house of the wealthy sugar-makers, Papmeli. There, being among the sugar kings, he tasted a truly sweet life. “Vrubel lived like a native at the Papmelis,” wrote the biographer of the artist, Alexander Ivanov. "In winter, I went with them to the opera, in summer I moved with everyone to the country house in Peterhof. The Papmelis got whatever they wanted, and everything about them didn’t look like a strict and modest way of life in Vrubel’s family; the house was a full bowl, even in an excessively literal sense, and it was due to the Papmelis that Vrubel, for the first time felt an inclination for wine, which was never lacking there”, he continued. The bohemian public was constantly at their house – musicians, artists and just sympathizers. That environment must have prompted Vrubel to take up painting seriously.
After graduating from the university with mediocre results and after serving military service, 24-year-old Vrubel entered the Academy of Arts as a volunteer. It would not be a big exaggeration to say that the decision was unexpected not only for the father (who wanted Mikhail to continue the family tradition), but for himself as well.
The demon fallen
Something strange about Mikhail was first noticed at the Academy. Criticizing what was happening in the Academy and the teaching methods practiced there was considered to be a good tone among creative young people in those days. Vrubel was not just a decent student - he was truly devoted to his mentor Pavel Chistyakov. “When I started taking lessons from Chistyakov, I liked his basic principles a lot,” he wrote to his sister. “Because they were nothing more than the formula of my living relationship with nature”, he continued. Chistyakov was an outstanding teacher - artists such as Repin, Serov, Vasnetsov, Surikov were taught by him. At first, Vrubel was on good terms with some of them. He was close with Repin for some time. However, things ended up in a major conflict over Repin’s painting “Religious procession in Kursk Province”, which Vrubel fiercely criticized for being too ideological. His aesthetic priorities were fully formed at that time. Frankly speaking, Vrubel believed that not only art, but everything in nature was “decorative and only decorative.”
In 1881 Vrubel was awarded the second Silver Medal of the Academy for the sketch “The Betrothal of Mary with Joseph”. His relationship with the Academy came to an end as suddenly as it began in 1883. The famous archaeologist Adrian Prakhov (following the recommendation of Chistyakov) invited Vrubel to participate in the restoration of the Church of St. Cyril in Kiev. The proposal promised good earnings, and Vrubel set off. He did not return to continue studying at the Academy.
Vrubel gained invaluable experience in Kiev. There were frescoes and icons, restoration works in the Church of St. Cyril and St. Sophia Cathedral – all that was an enormous amount of hard work, which lasted for five years. Art historian Nina Dmitrieva wrote that, working in “co-authorship” with 12th-century masters, Vrubel became one of the first major artists who “tossed a bridge from archaeological research to contemporary art.” As for his social life in Kiev, it was also abundant and vibrant.
Vrubel's appearance in the city made an unforgettable impression on his colleagues. For example, the artist Lev Kovalsky (a student at the Kiev Drawing School in those years) recalled: “Against the background of the primitive Kirillovsky hills, there was a blond, almost white blond, young man, with a very distinguishing head, standing behind me. His moustache was also almost white. He was of average height, very well built, he was dressed ... that was something at that time that could have hit me the most ... in a black velvet suit, wearing stockings, short pantaloons and elastic-sided boots. In general, it was a young Venetian from a Tintoretto or Titian painting, but I learned this many years later when I was in Venice.”
In Kiev, Vrubel fell in love with his employer's wife, Emilia Prahova. Emilia was a talented pianist, a student of Franz Liszt. She owned a literary salon in Kiev and was, according to the recollections of her granddaughter, Alexandra, “a foolish lady”. Overall, taking into consideration the peculiarity of Vrubel's nature, it was not surprising that he was smitten. He portrayed Emily’s face on the icon “The Mother of God with the Child”, painted for the altar of the Church of St. Cyril. The feeling was rather platonic and unreciprocated - at first it amused both Emilia herself and Adrian Prahov. However, after Vrubel had moved to the Prahovs' dacha, he began to irritate both, and was soon sent to Italy to study Byzantine art.
It did not help. As soon as he returned, Vrubel told Adrian Prakhov that he was determined to marry Emilia. And, although Prakhov did not stop communicating with an eccentric young man, according to the recollections of his loved ones, he already treated him with some apprehension.
Vrubel, meanwhile, became a frequenter of the Château de Fleur café, he spent all his money on drinking. A creative crisis was soon added to the mental anguish. The only painting that Vrubel managed to finish throughout the “Kiev” period after returning from Italy was “The girl against the background of Persian carpet” - however, the customer did not like it. Having come to Kiev, his father was terrified: “Neither a warm blanket, nor a warm coat, nor a dress, besides that on it ... It hurts so much.”
Alexander Vrubel decided to resign due to illness and settle in Kiev in 1889. Mikhail promised to look after his father who had fallen ill. In September 1889, he went to Moscow - “to see acquaintances” and lingered for 15 years.
The demon rejected
Konstantin Korovin, with whom Vrubel became close in Moscow, recalled: "Vrubel surrounded himself with strange people, some kind of snobs, revelers, circus artists, Italians, poor people, alcoholics." Probably, his sudden move to Moscow was connected with his passion for circus art, especially with one circus rider.
Nonetheless, he settled in Korovin’s studio. They were going to work together with Valentin Serov, however Vrubel soon fell out with Serov, and the gang died without being born. Korovin succeeded in finding a place for Vrubel in Savva Mamontov’s house, a famous Moscow patron of the arts, whose sons were in desperate need for a tutor. That acquaintance was the beginning of a long friendship: being a very sagacious person, Mamontov immediately saw that Vrubel was a great artist. And although his wife didn’t tolerate Vrubel, calling him “a drunkard and a blasphemer,” Savva Ivanovich put up with that, waited and was full of hope.
Soon Mikhail Vrubel had a chance to represent the theme of the Demon, which began to take possession of him back in Kiev. It was decided to publish the anniversary two-volume book of Lermontov with illustrations of “the best artistic forces” in 1890. A total of 18 illustrators were involved in the work (Repin, Shishkin and Aivazovsky were among them). Vrubel was there due to Mamontov’s protection, and was the only artist unknown to the public. However, his works caused a stir in the press: critics noted the “rudeness, ugliness, caricature and absurdity” (1, 2, 3).
Stoically withstanding the attacks of critics, Vrubel painted "The demon seated" in the same year. It was one of his most powerful and recognizable paintings. However, his painting did not cause a standing ovation.
In July 1990, Mamontov’s 22-year-old son Andrei, with whom Vrubel was close, died in Abramtsevo. Having arrived at the funeral, he lingered, and soon wrote to his sister that "he began to manage the factory of tiled and terracotta decorations." Mamontov's studios in Abramtsevo allowed Vrubel to go headlong into his beloved decorative art. He was fond of ceramics and was irreplaceable in that field. He designed majolica chapels and fireplaces, decorated the facades and interiors, created panels, sculptures, stained glass windows, worked on theatrical scenery and costumes. Vrubel started getting commissions. He swiftly dissipated his fees and drank a lot. As part of the emerging "Russian modern", Vrubel wasn’t given a lot of room in a sense, and although the artist didn’t admit it even to himself, he longed for recognition.
In 1894 Mikhail Vrubel plunged into such an obvious depression that Mamontov sent him to Italy - to distract him and at the same time look after his eldest son Sergey, who was treating kidneys in Europe. Upon his return, Vrubel participated in the exhibition of the Moscow Association of Artists with the sculpture “The Head of a Giant”. In the newspaper "Russian Gazette" it was separately referred to as "an example of how you can deprive the plot of artistic and poetic beauty."
The peak of Vrubel's unpopularity was at the All-Russia Industrial and Artistic Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod (1896), on the occasion of which Mamontov procured for the artist an order for two large panels in the pavilion of the art department.
After reviewing the sketches, Albert Benoit, who curated the project, gave the laconic telegram to the Academy of Arts: “Vrubel’s panel is monstrous, t is necessary to remove it. We’re waiting for the jury.” The commission found it impossible to exhibit the works by Vrubel, and the unfinished panels were bought by Mamontov. They were completed by Vrubel in Abramtsevo. For the ill-fated “Mikula Selyaninovich” and “Princess of Dreams”, Mamontov built a separate pavilion, where they were displayed under the sign “Exhibition of decorative panels by the artist M.A.Vrubel, rejected by the jury of the Imperial Academy of Arts.” Although a full-fledged “Salon of the Rejected” did not come out of this venture, the press hype was again at its highest level. In his memoirs, Konstantin Korovin quoted an anecdote that was well-known at that time: When Vrubel was ill and was in the hospital, Dyagilev’s exhibition opened at the Academy of Arts. The opening was attended by the sovereign. Seeing the picture of Vrubel "Lilac", the sovereign said: - How beautiful it is! I like it. The Grand Duke Vladimir Alexandrovich, who was standing nearby, passionately objected: - What is it? This is decadence ... - “No, I like it,” said the sovereign. – Who painted this? - “It is Vrubel”, they said to the sovereign. ... Turning to his retinue and seeing Count Tolstoy (the vice president of the Academy of Arts), the sovereign said: - Count Ivan Ivanovich, is he the one who was executed in Nizhny?
The demon prostrate
In 1896 in St. Petersburg, Mikhail Vrubel met the singer Nadezhda Zabela (1, 2) as she performed in the opera “Hansel and Gretel”, the scenery for which was done by the artist. Later, Zabela recalled that she was a little scared: “I was amazed and even somewhat shocked that some gentleman ran up to me and, kissing my hand, exclaimed: “A lovely voice!” T. S. Lyubatovich, standing there (the singer’s partner on stage - ed.), hurried to introduce him to me: "Our artist Mikhail Alexandrovich Vrubel," and said to me quietly: “This man is very expansive, but quite decent.” Vrubel proposed to her almost the same day (in a letter to his sister, he swore that he would have committed suicide if she had refused). Zabela heard that Vrubel drank heavily and almost all the time was broke, but nonetheless she answered “yes”.
They got married in Switzerland. Vrubel, who came to Geneva some time later, than the bride herself, once again was left without money, and walked from the station to the cathedral on foot. They lived in Kharkov for some time - Nadezhda had an engagement in the local opera there. Vrubel was at that time, as usual, gloomy and quick-tempered, besides that, a new alarming symptom was revealed in Kharkov - terrible migraines, which the artist jammed with huge doses of phenacetin.
The family had their first son Savva in 1901. This event completely changed the situation: the mother left the stage for a while, Mikhail Alexandrovich had to support the family on his own. Savva was born with a “hare lip”, the defect made a painful impression on his father - he saw that as a bad sign. Mikhail Vrubel got into depression again and worked on the painting “The demon prostrate” 14 hours a day. He was obsessed with that work. After doing what was necessary, he reworked it again and again. From time to time the artist left for a binge and became especially violent - once his wife even had to flee from him to her relatives in Ryazan. In the spring of 1902, Mikhail Vrubel was first hospitalized with symptoms of an acute mental disorder.
It is difficult to judge what contribution the insanity made to Vrubel’s creativity. Apparently, if he were normal in terms of psychiatry, he would have been someone like Robert Smith, Tim Burton or other frivolous pop heroes who are not averse to “play in decadence” nowadays. Maybe it was the madness that gave his work such an alarming, mysterious and powerful sound.
As for the notorious public opinion, here Vrubel's illness played the most beneficial part. From an unbearable sociopath he immediately turned into a tragic figure, who needed not disapproval, but rather sympathy. Yesterday's critics talked about the fact that the artist was ahead of his time. Functionaries who found Vrubel's works "monstrous" elected him an academician of painting - "for his fame in the artistic field."
Of course, recognition was gotten too late – fatally too late.
One clinic was followed by another. Delusions of grandeur were replaced by seizures of self-deprecation. Sometimes there was a temporary enlightenment, followed by another crisis. A particularly strong blow to Vrubel’s unstable psyche was the death of his son in 1903: soon after, his condition worsened so much that they began to talk about him in the past tense, although the artist remained creatively active until 1906.
The initial diagnosis - tertiary syphilis - turned out to be only partly true. Dr. Fyodor Usoltsev (in whose clinic Vrubel experienced the longest remission) found out that the disease struck not the brain, but Vrubel's spinal cord, and manic-depressive psychosis developed separately. One way or another, one outcome was foreseen: spiritual and physical degradation. Mikhail Vrubel had got completely blind by 1906. According to Anna Vrubel, the artist’s beloved sister, who had looked after him during the last years of his life, he repeatedly said that he was tired of living. In February 1910, Vrubel opened the window and inhaled the frosty air for a long time, which provoked pneumonia. Probably, he did it unconsciously: the last year he was caught up in his hallucinations and was hardly clearly aware of what he was doing. However, on the eve of his death, Mikhail Vrubel brushed his hair, washed out with cologne, and told the orderly, who was looking after him that night: “Nikolai, it’s enough for me to lie in here - let's go to the Academy”. The next day, the coffin with the artist's body was installed at the Academy of Fine Arts - Vrubel turned out to be a visionary again. He was buried in the Novodevichy cemetery. Standing above his grave, Alexander Blok said: “Vrubel and people like him are able to open up something really special to the humanity once a century. I admire that. We don’t see those worlds, which they did”.