The decorative panels that Vrubel painted for the 1896 All-Russia Artistic and Industrial Exhibition in Nizhny Novgorod occupy a special place in his work. When the philanthropist Savva Mamontov discovered two bare walls beneath the domes of the art pavilion, he asked Vrubel to fill them with murals. The artist sketched two compositions. The first alluded to a medieval source, Edmond Rostan’s «Princess of Dreams» and was meant to embody the Art Nouveau ideal of beauty. Mikula Selyaninovich was dedicated to the heroes of ancient Russian tales the heroes who personified the power of the Russian earth.
The innovative panels, with their two-dimensional ornaments and sophisticated dusky palette, recalled ancient frescoes or faded tapestries. They were a striking expression of the ideas about synthesis of the arts typical of the Art Nouveau style, especially the Scandinavian variant. Academic juries could not appreciate Vrubel’s unique artistic language, and denied his entry. But Mamontov had a new pavilion built outside the exhibition to provide space for the panels, and they were a huge success. Vasily Polenov and Konstantin Korovin helped Vrubel put the finishing touches on the panels.
In Princess of Dreams
Vrubel took a unique approach to interpreting a well-known tale about the Provencal prince and troubadour Geoffroy Rudel, who learns from the stories of pilgrims about the Princess Melisande, who lives far beyond the sea in the Antioch city of Tripoli. Without ever having seen the beautiful maiden, he reaches out to her with his celestial love, singing her praises in poetry and song. Having foreseen her approaching death, he sets off on a voyage in order to meet the woman of his dreams, and then dies in her arms. The boat of Prince Geoffroy and his friend, the knight and poet Bertrand, is captured by pirates, who are so deeply affected by the power of the prince’s love that they become crusaders.
Setting aside the plot of Rostan’s adventure tale, Vrubel emphasizes the mystic aspect. The prince, like Orpheus, sings his final song; his lute is the semantic center of the composition. The enchanting sounds of music transfigure both the souls of people and the elements of nature. His encounter with the beautiful woman occurs on a supernatural plane, created by the magical charms of art. The princess is a vision, a dream, the ideal of ethereal, unearthly beauty. Wearing a diamond diadem and holding white lilies, she hovers like the north wind or a cloud above the ship’s deck. The image of the Princess of Dreams resonates with the theme of the Eternal Feminine in the work of the major Symbolist poets, Vladimir Solovyov, Alexander Blok and Andrei Bely.
You are as beautiful as snow beyond the mountains,
You are cold as a winter’s night
You radiate like a polar flame,
O bright daughter of dark chaos
The sea and boat are perceived as symbols of the wanderings of a lonely soul in search of perfect beauty, and simultaneously as a symbol of hope. The prince’s mystical love for the princess symbolizes a mystical creative impulse. In a sketch for the composition, in the collection of the State Russian Museum, the placement of the figures is slightly different. The princess descends from the heavens in the form of a radiant vision, and the dying prince lifts his face toward her.
Initially Vrubel intended to depict the miraculous vision in a more traditional manner, but final version is dominated by a two-dimensional decorative style. Thinking in generalized rhythmic masses, Vrubel isolates the horizontal, vertical and diagonal, achieving a particular monumental quality with these schematic compositions. The boat rises above the waves, aiming its prow at the sky. Vrubel’s diagonal has a solemn languor. The image is penetrated by the rhythm of the wavelike ornament. The decorations on the carpet and in the folds of the figures’ clothing break up the generalized planes. Theatrical devices play an important role in achieving the effect of the grandeur of the unfolding spectacle: the ship’s deck is the stage, its sail is the curtain.
Though it was not originally planned to decorate a particular architectural space, the panel had the potential to synthesize the arts. Later, a majolica panel was made in Mamontov’s ceramics studio using the motifs of Princess of Dreams, and it was an organic fit for the fa?ade of the Hotel Metropole in Moscow.
Kept nearly half a century in storage amid old stage decorations at Zimin’s theater and the Bolshoi Theater, in 1956 Princess of Dreams arrived at the Tretyakov Gallery in a severely damaged state. Repaired by the museum’s restoration experts under the direction of Alexei Kovalyov, it was made available to viewers only in 1996 in a Vrubel room specially created during renovations. The second panel, Mikula Selyaninovich, designed in the neo-Russian style, is perceived as a polemic dialogue with Viktor Vasnetsov’s famous painting, The Bogatyrs (1898, State Tretyakov Gallery). Vrubel arrived at a complex artistic hyperbole in his attempt to communicate the specifics of the mythic mindset. His Russian heroes of choice are not those (who gained fame) on the battlefield, but the farmer Mikula Selyaninovich and a Varagian tribute collector, the wizard Volga. The composition was based on the dialogue of the heroes in a fantastic landscape decorated with Russian motifs.
The robust figures of the Bogatyrs, which seem to grow from the Russian soil, are perceived as the personifications of the spiritual power and the irrational natural strength coming from the true Russian soil in the image of Mikula, and the supernatural powers that come from the rational, Nordic West in the image of Volga. In the context of symbolism, this diametrical opposition can be seen as a reflection on the priority of spiritual values embodied by each of the heroes.
Mikula Selyaninovich and Volga.
Fireplace, majolica, 1898-1899. Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia.
A version of Mikula Selyaninovich was later displayed at the exhibition of Russian art in Paris in 1906, as surviving photographs demonstrate. At the present the panel’s location is unknown. We can piece together a picture of Vrubel’s plan using surviving sketches for the panel in the Tretyakov Gallery’s collection. In the sketch closest to the final version of the panel, the emphatically horizontal format cuts off the edges of Mikula’s figure; the powerful plane of his back is turned toward the viewer, which makes him more impressive. The hero’s magnificent steed directs the viewer’s gaze to the depth of the composition. Unlike Mikula, the horseman Volga appears to be drowning in the thicket. He is headed in the opposite direction and turns around to face Mikula.
Clearly unsatisfied with the panel created for the exhibition, Vrubel subsequently returned to this theme several times in both painting and the applied arts: in the decorative panel The Bogatyr (State Russian Museum), the tiled fireplace Mikula Selyaninovich and the Volga, in two versions (State Tretyakov Gallery and Kolomenskoye Museum-reserve). This theme is indirectly reflected in the decorative panel Midday in the parlor of Sergei Morozov’s mansion on Spiridonovka.
State Tretyakov Gallery