Dmitrii Semenovich Stelletsky (Russian, 1875-1947) 'The Fox Hunt'

Russian unorthodox

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 51, Summer 2017

Page 22

Looking back to move on, Dmitri Stelletsky mined his country's medieval imagery to forge a very modern art. Rosamund Bartlett is dazzled by his achievement

On the eve of World War I, the most radical members of Russia's avant-garde were seeking stylistic renewal in their native artistic culture. Stravinsky turned to Russian folk song. Poet Velimir Khlebnikov reveled in his language's archaisms. And modernist artist Dmitri Stelletsky (1875-1947) sought to establish a new style of Russian art by reviving ancient, national ideals. His sculptures, paintings, theater designs and illustrations hark back to the time of Ivan the Terrible's Illustrated Chronicle, with its 16,000 hand-painted miniatures. The qualities of beauty, simplicity and majesty that Stelletsky so admired in Russian art of yore are all reflected in his work – of which the four pieces to be offered in June's Russian Sale – Fox Hunt, Stag Hunt, The Dawn & The Dusk and Young Boyarina – are good examples.

Nothing in his background predicted such a refined talent. Stelletsky's father was a military engineer who had been posted to Brest-Litovsk, in the western part of the Russian Empire, to work on the reconstruction of the city's 19th-century fortress. Stelletsky was born there, but after his mother's death two years later, he and his brother Boris were largely brought up in the nearby village of Shestakovo, along with the five children born after their father remarried. The family property was about 30 miles to the north, near the fabled Belovezhskaya Pushcha, a primeval forest that currently straddles the Polish and Belarusian borders. Full of protected wild bison, it was particularly beloved of Tsar Alexander II, who, in 1860, designated the area as the imperial hunting reserve.

Stelletsky's repeated depictions of hunting scenes clearly owe something to his childhood. In 1896, Stelletsky's father moved to St Petersburg, and the family settled into a new home on Vasilievsky Island, a 10-minute walk from the Imperial Academy of Arts, where Dmitri became an architecture student. A year later, aged 22, he switched to sculpture, and threw himself into copying ancient Russian monuments and poring over medieval sources in the Academy's library, which would inspire him to execute a set of fine illustrations for the 12th-century epic The Lay of Prince Igor.

He graduated in 1903, and the following year spent time in Paris at the Académie Julian, a private art school for painting and sculpture that was popular with foreign students. Initially, it seems, Stelletsky had hopes of forging a career at the Sèvres Porcelain Factory, but when they were dashed, he returned to Russia to work at Talashkino, an important artists' colony established by Princess Maria Tenisheva at her estate in the Smolensk region.

Talashkino acted as a crucible for the modern movement through its simultaneous cultivation of traditional peasant crafts and an Art Nouveau aesthetic. During a year there, Stelletsky worked productively in different media. He carved a group sculpture that included Princess Tenisheva in a boyar costume and decorated one of her balalaikas. It was at Talashkino, too, that Stelletsky became one of the first Russian artists of his day to deploy the idioms of icon painting and 16th-century miniatures.

An early example is his 1904 painting Falcon Hunt, completed after traveling to study antiquities that summer in the churches and monasteries of old Russian cities such as Yaroslavl, Kostroma, Novgorod and Pskov – in a party organized by Princess Tenisheva.

Stelletsky would return many times to the unspoilt north. He was enchanted by the integrity of its sacred and folk art, making copies of frescoes, icons and miniatures to use as the foundation for the development of his own style – rather than as a point of departure, as was the case with Kandinsky and Ivan Bilibin, for example. As he later wrote, "Russian people deserve to have their own art.

Over the years I have understood that we can, and should, resurrect our own Russian beauty by studying the artistic heritage of our ancestors and even slavishly imitating it at first. I know that my receptivity to Russian beauty is innate and not cultivated."

Back in St Petersburg, Stelletsky was immune to the city's Western European blandishments, pursuing his neo-Byzantine ideal with fanaticism, down to reviving the two-dimensional flattened style and reverse perspective of Russia's icons, and mixing his own paints according to medieval methods, rather than use modern compounds.

Indeed, a trip he took to Italy and France in 1907 with his friend Boris Kustodiev only strengthened his conviction about the originality of Russian art, and the importance of his mission to repair the cultural damage inflicted by Peter the Great's westernizing reforms.

In this time, he produced designs (including the charming Young Boyarina) for Diaghilev's Paris productions of Boris Godunov (1908) and The Maid of Pskov (1909), as well as for Vsevolod Meyerhold's Imperial Theaters staging of Aleksey Tolstoy's play Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich. All three were set in the 16th century.

In 1911, Alexandre Benois published the first serious appraisal of Stelletsky's work in the modernist journal Apollon, and its editorial offices hosted his first solo exhibition. Through his friend Boris Anrep, international recognition now came. Alongside Natalia Goncharova and Mikhail Larionov, he was one of 13 contemporary Russian artists represented at Roger Fry's 1912 Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition in London. This was the first major display in Britain of Picasso and Matisse, for which Anrep – asked to curate the Russian section – selected six well-received works by Stelletsky. (These included The Dawn & The Dusk, Fox Hunt and Stag Hunt, which was praised by The Times newspaper as both "spirited and amusing".)

Stelletsky's devotion to old Russian art anticipated the huge interest generated when the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and Russian Museum in St Petersburg opened conservation departments for their icons, and people began avidly collecting them. Icons were now precious works of art, not just religious artifacts: featuring newly cleaned examples from the 15th and 16th century, the first major exhibition on icons – held in Moscow in 1913 – was a revelation to artists and public alike. In this context, Stelletsky painted Stag Hunt and Fox Hunt in tempera on boards, the traditional medium for icons, whose spirit is also reflected in the stylised landscapes and figures. In 1914, Stelletsky traveled to Italy and France, where he was stranded when World War I broke out. He never returned to Russia.

After decorating Russian field chapels in France during the conflict, he settled near Cannes and worked both as a book illustrator and painter of icons and frescoes for Russian Orthodox churches, but he was lonely. In a 1922 letter to Ilya Ostroukhov, a prominent collector of icons before the Revolution, he expressed a nostalgic wish to be back in Russia – but there could be no future for an artist of works so imbued with tradition and religion in a country where atheist materialism reigned.

Once Stalin inaugurated the doctrine of Socialist Realism in the early 1930s, it would have been dangerous even to mention Stelletsky's name in the Soviet Union. By the time of his death in 1947, it had been quietly erased from the annals of Russian art.

It is only in recent years that Stelletsky's reputation has started to grow again, initially in the West, but now also in his homeland.

Exhibitions of his work in 2015 and 2016, in Brest and Tula respectively – the latter referring to him as "the forgotten artist" of turn-of-the-century Russia – are testament to the sense of rediscovery. At auction, too, his works are proving increasingly popular, with collectors prizing them as a significant part of, and window onto, the rich artistic legacy of early 20th-century St Petersburg.

Rosamund Bartlett is the author of widely acclaimed biographies of Chekhov and Tolstoy.

Sale: The Russian Sale
Wednesday 7 June at 3pm
Enquiries: Daria Chernenko +44 (0) 20 7468 8338
[email protected]

Related auctions