November 01, 2003

Kustodiev's Art World

In the World of Art artistic league, which contained the entire glory that was St. Petersburg’s Silver Age and a portion of the seasons of Diaghilev, he stood apart. Boris Mikhailovich Kustodiev (1878-1927) had his own World of Art, far from the Versailles of the Sun King or the Peterhof of Elizabeth’s time. It was a Volga thing, a devil may care, reckless thing, full of sun and music, with fairs and farces, troikas, traktirs and banyas, samovars from Tula and trays from Zhostov, fashionable merchant’s wifes and their dashing husbands. It was motley as lubok, and as subtle as a Flemish painting.

This world was not contained by his canvasses, but splashed over beyond the frames of his paintings, into his life, his studio, with its collection of wooden toys and Russian songs performed by Shalyapin. Kustodiev’s Petersburg home on the Petrograd Side (Vvedenskaya ulitsa 7) was, for more than 10 years before and after the revolution, a true artistic salon, where art people met, discussed their latest works, held concerts and literary readings. All of the World of Art people gathered there —Dobuzhinsky, Bilibin, Somov, Petrov-Vodkin, Benois and Vereysky were all guests. Poets and writers—Alexander Blok, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Alexey Tolstoy— called at Kustodiev’s. The apartment has memories of Yershov’s voice, whose portrait in the role of Siegfried, painted with Kustodiev’s brush, still hangs in the Mariinsky Theater. And Shalyapin’s, whose most famous portrait was painted there. And in the 1920s, a certain promising young musician named Dmitry Shostakovich often played for the Kustodievs on their luxurious Blutner piano. So it is that Kustodiev’s paintings and drawings contained nearly all of the remarkable Petersburgians of the era surrounding 1917.

Yet the artist’s favorite models were always his wife and two children, and his numerous pets, who hung about in the studio during working hours. The artist’s daughter recalled: “Our house was always full of animals. Cats and their kittens lived in a box that was in papa’s studio, and he would pet them and play with them for hours, hold them in his arms, or put them under his coat. Once, the writer Samuil Marshak came to visit on some publishing business. Suddenly, at the height of the discussions, four fluffy heads peeked out from under papa’s coat. The kittens had woken up and were looking out. Marshak was touched by this for a long time.”

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