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  • The Icon and the Square: Russian Modernism and the Russo-Byzantine Revival by Maria Taroutina
  • Sarah Warren
The Icon and the Square: Russian Modernism and the Russo-Byzantine Revival. Maria Taroutina. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2018. Pp. 288. $89.95 (cloth).

Maria Taroutina's The Icon and the Square: Russian Modernism and the Russo-Byzantine Revival is a sorely needed addition to the current scholarship on Russian art. It also offers a broader contribution to our understanding of the role of revival movements within modernism. Opening with the Enlightenment scorn for Byzantium in the eighteenth century, Taroutina offers a nuanced account of how the perception and valuation of Russia's affinities with Byzantine culture developed, often in relation to other intellectual and aesthetic movements. Certainly, the underlying premise of this book—that medieval Russian and Byzantine cultural traditions were important to the development of modernism in Russia—has been explored by several other [End Page 385] art historians, notably Wendy Salmond and Oleg Tarasov. The Icon and the Square, however, more fully excavates the texts that formed these notions of the Russo-Byzantine, explaining how the concept changed with new scholarly and cultural developments, and also how these new understandings were embodied in scholarly, pedagogical, and religious institutions. The author examines a number of scholarly and critical voices who shaped this literature, ranging from the art historian and archaeologist Nikodim Kondakov, to the religious philosopher Vladimir Soloviev, and even the revolutionary critics Pavel Florensky, Nikolai Punin, and Nikolai Tarabukin, who called for a rethinking of the role of art in the early Soviet period.

As Taroutina explains, a kind of "Byzantine Revival" occurred throughout nineteenth-century Europe, but by juxtaposing Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant's The Empress Theodora at the Coliseum (1889) and Vasilii Smirnov's The Morning Visit of a Byzantine Empress to the Graves of Her Ancestors (1889), she deftly illustrates the gulf between Western and Russian perceptions of the Byzantine. Whereas Benjamin-Constant presented his Byzantine Empress as the apex of corruption, decadence, and sensual excess, Smirnov's Theodora is a model of enduring faith, humility, and tradition. This contrast is consistent with the particular uses to which the image of Byzantium was put in the later Russian Empire. An emphasis on the Byzantine roots of the Russian state was an important component of a broader critique of the Europeanization of Russia under Peter the Great and his eighteenth-century successors. Again, this is not a new argument, but what Taroutina provides is an exhaustive account of how the scholarly enthusiasm for the Russo-Byzantine period grew into a sophisticated historical literature on and aesthetic appreciation of icons.

The Icon and the Square also demonstrates the concrete continuities between the philosophical and aesthetic understanding of Russo-Byzantine icons before and after the October Revolution. While Taroutina resists claims that the icon was a universally accepted model for the fundamental challenges posed by the early Soviet avant-garde, she describes this spiritual framework as a point of tension between the different avant-garde positions adopted in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution, tensions that were constitutive of the differences between, for example, Malevich, Tatlin, and the Constructivists.

The structure of the book mostly serves this argument; chapter one builds the foundation of the intellectual history, with detailed descriptions of the historical narratives of the Russo-Byzantine by the scholars and critics noted above, among others. The second chapter surveys the history of collecting, preserving, and exhibiting medieval icons in imperial Russia. The last three chapters explore the uses of the icon by a number of important Russian modernists, with chapters devoted to Mikhail Vrubel, Vasily Kandinsky, and the last to the related but contrasting approaches of both Kazimir Malevich and Vladimir Tatlin.

The chapter on Vrubel is an important addition to the scholarship on an artist whose work is underexamined in English. Contrasting Vrubel's work with his more conventional contemporaries, such as Victor Vasnetsov, Taroutina argues that Vrubel was a sophisticated interpreter of Byzantine notions of pictorial space. She also persuasively posits that Vrubel's signature block-like brushstrokes—which earlier critics likened to Cézanne—were developed out of his work restoring...


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pp. 385-387
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