Mstislav Valerianovich Dobuzhinsky (Novgorod 1875 - New York 1957)

A Russian Village Street; Old Poland; Inside the Grand House

the first two signed 'Dobuzhinsky', one indistinctly dated '3...' (lower right) and one dated '23' (lower left); the latter signed with monogram 'MD' (lower right)
two pencil on paper; one watercolour and gouache on paper
23 x 28 cm (9 x 11 in); 23 x 30.2 cm (9 x 11⅞ in); 14.3 x 23 cm (5⅝ x 9 in) (3)

Provenance: Ben Uri Art Gallery (A Russian Village Street).

These three works are typical examples of the drawings of Mstislav Valerianovich Dobuzhinsky. They encompass a number of aspects of the style which made him a significant member of Mir Iskusstva (‘The World of Art’ Group), a leading Russian avant-garde movement at the turn of the twentieth century.

A Russian Village Street depicts a rural alleyway surrounded by three old buildings full of character and charm. The two in the foreground are built of timber and embellished with a few patterned carvings. There is a slightly unkempt, ramshackle air to the street, something which is enhanced by Dobuzhinsky’s loose and intentionally imprecise pencil strokes. Despite being drawn in the 1930s, the drawing harks back to a previous era and presents a nostalgic look back at villages of pre-industrial Russia.

Old Poland has a similar subject of slightly old and rickety buildings, a village yet to be pervaded by the ugly, functional architecture of the twentieth century. Beyond the sloping roofs of the buildings a local church is visible, the defining symbol of a traditional community. These interpretations of A Russian Village Street and Old Poland as nostalgic images can be made when considered in the context of Dobuzhinsky’s career as a whole. Urbanisation was the dominant theme in his art and, like many members of Mir Iskusstva, he placed an emphasis on the aesthetic beauty of the past. In some works, such as A Cottage in St. Petersburg, Dobuzhinsky overtly refers to his dislike of modernisation by contrasting an old wooden cottage with the stark concrete building behind it. St. Petersburg was ‘the main object of his love and dreams for many years’ and the sense of nostalgia is acute.¹ In the context of explicit works like A Cottage in St. Petersburg, the numerous images of streets, which Dobuzhinsky produced throughout his life, become more poignant. Simple sketches, such as A Russian Village Street and Old Poland recur often throughout his career.

Inside the Grand House is slightly less typical but it does reflect the influence of stage-design, which was the other major aspect to Dobuzhinsky’s career. The room is designed very much like a stage set, with a relatively shallow, linear composition. Similarly, the thick, plush curtains, which Dobuzhinsky employs as a framing device, immediately recall stage curtains.

Born in Lithuania, Dobuzhinsky sought an artistic education in Europe before settling in St. Petersburg in 1901, joining Mir Iskusstva the following year, to become one of the youngest and most gifted members of the group. He soon became noted for his cityscapes conveying the explosive growth and decay of the early twentieth-century city and this particular subject matter as well as the expressive technique seen in Inside a Grand House, set him apart from other members of the movement. From 1907 he expanded his activities to encompass stage design, teaching and book illustration. His most significant foray into the latter was illustrating Fyodor Dostoevsky’s (1821-1881) White Nights, in which, as throughout his career, ‘Dobuzhinsky interpreted the city as the real hero of the story’.² In 1924 he left Russia for Lithuania and subsequently travelled throughout Europe before finally settling in the U.S.A.

¹ Kovarsky, V., M. V. Dobujinsky - Pictorial Poet of St. Petersburg (Russian Review, vol. 19, no.1, January 1960,) p.24.
² Rosenfeld, A., ‘The World of Art Group: Book and Poster Design’ in Defining Russian Graphic Arts: from Diaghilev to Stalin, 1898-1934, ed. Rosenfeld, A. (Rutgers University Press, 1999) p.89.