The Notion of “Impressionism” in Russian Aesthetic Criticism and in the Works of Elena Guro

Adele Di Ruocco, University of Southern California

George Berkeley’s affirmation “esse is percipi” (to be is to be perceived) can be used as epigraph to the impressionist aesthetics. Like the British empiricist, in fact, impressionists pay attention to the outside world as it is perceived by the human mind. If in art the term “impressionism” first appeared in relation to Claude Monet’s painting Impression: Soleil Lévant in 1872, in literature Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale (1869) and the brothers Des Goncourts’ journal (1887-1896) are considered examples of impressionist prose. These two works show the kind of genre the impressionist writers prefer—diaries, notebooks, memoirs or journals, e.g. a prose or poetry which is concerned with the narrator’s capacity to refer shortly and precisely what is going on around him.

The aesthetic of impressionism belongs to a general investigation in visual perception which develops in the 1870s and the 1880s. In psychology, for example, a group of “critical empiricists” guided by William Wundt studies the subjective perception, while in philosophy Henri Bergson develops the idea of consciousness as the fundamental condition, which allows for the unification of time and space in a homogenous flow of events.

In the late 1890s, French impressionism is acknowledged in Russia, and from 1908 to 1912 its aesthetics will be particularly popular in art and literature. In contrast to the French, the aesthetics of Russian impressionism is more concerned with psychology and subjectivity, as testified, for example, by Nikolai Evreinov’s monodrama Predstavlenie liubvi, published in the journal Studia impressionistov in 1910, and Vladimir Mayakovsky’s lyrics under the title Ya written in 1913. Elena Guro’s poetry is also characterized by subjectivism. In contrast to the French aesthetics, her perception of the world is enriched by the transmission of a particular mood which becomes the reading key of the surrounding world. For this reason, Guro’s style has been defined by Osip Dymov emotional impressionism in 1905. Guro records environments not for the process of light and time fleeting, like Monet does in his series on the Rouen Cathedral, but for the temporary similitude of the landscape to her mood. Guro’s poetry is the product of a period between symbolism and futurism. She is a kind of outsider living in a world which is weakly affected by the echoes of modernity.