Neoclassical Revival

The Neoclassical Revival was one of the many original phenomena in the Russian art of the early twentieth century. At a time when daring avant-garde experiments with form and colour were very much in vogue, some Russian artists sought inspiration in the works of medieval and Renaissance masters.

Painters like Alexander Yakovlev, Vasily Shukhayev and Zinaida Serebryakova were, to a certain extent, following a path already taken by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Nazarenes in Europe. Modern subjects are lightly stylised in their works in imitation of the painterly and plastic styles of their great predecessors.

The Neoclassical Revival of the 1910s was a reaction against the sense of individualism cultivated by Art Nouveau, which could never hope to satisfy the need for a universal style of beauty. Many Russian artists and architects looked instead to the normative and stylistic integrity of the past.

Neoclassical principles were less consistent in painting, because of what Alexander Benois called the “over-extended artistic line” or the great diversity of trends in Russian painting in the 1910s. The cultural and philosophical ideas of Neoclassicism were implemented most fully in Russian architecture.

The Neoclassical Revival style was inspired by articles in Apollo magazine and by the Historical Exhibition of Architecture, held in St Petersburg in spring 1911. The foreword to the catalogue was written by Alexander Benois, who rejected Art Nouveau and championed the classical architectural styles of the past.

The Neoclassical Revival was embraced by such young architects as Ivan Fomin, Alexei Schusyev and Vladimir Schuko. Schuko designed the highly successful Neoclassical Russian pavilion at the Esposizione internazionale dell’Industria e del Lavoro, held in Turin from 29 April to 31 October 1911.

Neoclassical Revival architecture was popular among the builders of Russian tenements, appealing to a broad range of wealthy investors, renters and buyers. This style allowed the occupants to feel like the previous aristocratic owners of the country and urban estates built in a Neoclassical manner a century earlier.

But there were major differences between the Neoclassical Revival of the 1910s and the pure Neoclassicism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Neoclassical Revival tenements were not so much a continuation of the traditional classical style and more a retrospective form of Art Nouveau.

The Neoclassical Revival was the last great architectural style in imperial Russia – and passed into history along with the empire. But Neoclassicism enjoyed an unexpected revival in the 1930s, when Soviet architects designed classically inspired buildings, reflecting the imperial ambitions of the USSR under Stalin.

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