The Russian Symbolists and John Ruskin's Aesthetics

Virginia Bennett, University of Hawaii

In her recent book on English Aestheticism and the Russian Modernists (English Literature and the Russian Aesthetic Renaissance), Rachel Polonsky devotes approximately four pages to John Ruskin and his reception by turn of the century Russians. I have been working on this topic for a number of years and would like to share my findings with this panel.

Those Russians who read English could have become acquainted with John Ruskin's monumental treatise on art Modern Painters (5 volumes between 1843-1860) as they were published. However, the majority mainly had access to him through a number of summaries and translations of selections from one work/or from selected works, depending upon the targeted audience. For example, those whose political agenda more closely matched that of the rising Social Democratic Party at the end of the 19th century preferred reading from Ruskin's later treatises dealing with socio-political problems. His Fors Clavigera, an example of such writings,was widely read by them as were other later works translated by L. N. Nikiforov in a multi-volume edition initiated in 1901.

However, those Russian Symbolists whose English was not up to the subtleties of Ruskin's originals, preferred reading selections from his Modern Painters and Stones of Venice. They found a great deal of inspiration in several translations available to them: that of Robert de la Sizeranne, Ruskin et la religion de la beauté (Reskin i religija krasoty in Mir bozhij. nn. 1-3, 9-12, 1899) translated by T. Bogdanov and Iskusstvo i dejstvitelnost?. Izbrannye mesta iz sochinenij Dzona Reskina,brought out in Severnyj Vestnik during 1896 and later issued as a book in 1900. Here the translator was Olga Mixailovna Solov'eva.

Solov'eva was known for her knowledge of English language and culture. She was an impassioned promulgator of British Aestheticism, including of its forefather, John Ruskin. Solov'eva was the sister-in-law of Vladimir Solov'ev and the first cousin of Aleksandr Blok’s mother. According to Andrej Belyj, in his Vospominanija o Bloke (Epopeja edition), she drew the attention of the younger symbolists, Blok and Belyj, not to mention her own son, Sergej M. Solov'ev to Ruskin's works. This is not to say that only these symbolists knew of Ruskin. There is mention of him not only in Blok's notebooks and Belyj's reminiscences, but also in Brjusov's, and Vjacheslav Ivanov's essays and diaries. The poets belonging to the World of Art circle also respected Ruskin's ideas.

The purpose of this presentation is to acquaint the listeners with how the Russian symbolists read Ruskin, interpreted him and found inspiration for their prose and poetry from their readings of Ruskin. Particular attention will be paid to selected works of Blok, Belyj and Vjacheslav Ivanov.