Time for another book review. Sometimes, with so many good books out there, it seems difficult to pin one down for exceptional praise. However, I recently purchased John E. Bowlt's Moscow and St. Petersburg, 1900-1920 - Art, Life and Culture of the Russian Silver Age, and was bowled over by the book.
Buying books online can be a hit and miss strategy at the best of times. If you can only view the cover, or have limited access to the contents, it gives you little idea as to the merits of the book. Art and design books are also notorious for placing one good illustration on the cover, giving the impression the insides are up to the same standard, but then finding that they are blatantly not.
So, although the book had been sitting on my Amazon wish list for ages, I crossed my fingers and bought it, purely for the fact that I both loved the front cover, a gorgeously colourful Leon Bakst costume for the Ballets Russes, as well as loving the period in Russian artistic history. As soon as it arrived, it turned into one of my favourite books. At nearly four hundred pages and with at least two illustrations per page, many in colour, the book is stuffed with visual information.
From fine art, to the crafts, from literature to dance, the period 1900 to 1920 was an explosion of individual and group creative talent never before seen in Russia. Whether you are interested in the formative years of Russian modernist fine art and its development into wild experimentation during the early Soviet years, or the formation of the Ballets Russes under the leadership of Serge Diaghilev and Vaslav Nijinsky and then its development into the creative phenomenon that brought in so many of the leading artist and designers of the period. Perhaps you are interested in the Russian Arts and Crafts Movement, with its belief in the continuation of Russian tradition through innovation in architecture, textiles, wood, metal, ceramics and glass. All this and more seemingly crammed into Bowlt's book.
1900 to 1920 was a momentous period in history for Europe. Starting with an enthusiastic embrace of all that was new, novel and intriguingly creative in the new century, it soon turned into a pointless, devastating and tragically avoidable continent-wide conflict with the resulting collapse of Empires and dynasties. However, in many ways perhaps Russia suffered more than most, but also perhaps gave the most creatively as well.
The period from the Russian Empire to the Soviet Union is one whereby a whole range of Russian artists, designers and craftspeople, many of whom I had never heard of until this book, were producing work that could, with fairness, be said to have been influenced by what was going on creatively in the rest of Europe. However, there were also large numbers of creative individuals across Russia who were producing work that paid little if any heed to European influence, being more in tune to the traditions that were so much a part of Russian life.
The book, in its title, signifies that it concentrates on what was going on creatively in the two significant cities of Russia, then as now, Moscow and St. Petersburg. However, this does not imply that the book concentrates on just the native creative talent of both cities. Both Moscow and St. Petersburg were magnets to creativity and brought in talent from across the old Russian Empire and later the newly formed Soviet Union.
Both Bowlt and Vendome, the publishers, have done a great job in producing Moscow and St. Petersburg, 1900-1920, and if like me you are fascinated by this particular period in history, and Russia in particular, I highly recommend the title. I was so thrilled by this book that I actually ordered another Vendome title in the same format as the Russian book, Christian Brandstatter's Vienna 1900, I'll review that when I have had a chance to read it.
Moscow and St. Petersburg, 1900-1920: Art, Life and Culture can easily be found on Amazon and most good online stores.
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