Glory Days: Russian Academy of St. Petersburg

By Matthew White (MFA 2016)

Russian Academy of Art
Known variously as the: Russian, Imperial, St. Petersburg, and Ilya Repin, Academy of the Arts, this school is the oldest and largest of its kind in Russia. The massive building it is housed in consists of three floors of long corridors that wrap around a central courtyard, and literally hundreds of studio classrooms. 

At the time of our visit, the Academy was on summer holiday and many of these rooms were closed or under maintenance. Actually, we were struck by the rather unkempt and run down condition inside of the facilities, a sad semblance of the grandeur and excellence that it must have once been. We could only imagine the creative energy and excitement that it must have contained during its heyday. We were hopeful that the mood would be better with the return of the regular session.

Founded in 1757 and moved to the present building in 1789 by Catherine the Great, the school was once the height of Russian art education, and training there was virtually required for a successful art career. The school also housed one of the premier collections of art in its museum, including works by Raphael, Rubens, Veronese, and Mengs, for example, all of which have since been moved to other museums like the Hermitage and the Russian Museum. The Academy's museum does still house some respectable works however, and also an impressive— if dusty—collection of casts, spanning works from Egypt to 19th century Europe, with an emphasis on the Antiquities.

Antique Casts

Cast Hall Goes On and On...

Today, the Russian Academy is made up of around 700 full time students, 500 additionally attending night classes, and 160 instructors. Students enrolled in the degree program attend for five years in one of four disciplines, painting, sculpture, architecture, or art history. During our visit, we met a student about to begin her second year in architecture who explained that she was working on a summer assignment, a drawing of the school's foyer, which she was supposed to finish in 20 hours and present on the first day back to class. We saw other students working on master copies in the school museum, like this one, working from a Fechin painting.

Studying Fechin

Architectural Drawing

Our architectural student, Belina, explained her decision to study architecture as a practical one and the greater likelihood of finding work after graduation. Indeed, despite the extremely high level of student work at the school, as seen in the following images, we had trouble finding examples of alumni work after leaving the Academy.

Recent Student Work

Nobody we talked to could point us to a gallery or exhibition in the city showing contemporary realism or even good representational work. In fact, we could hardly find any indication that these very talented artists continued to create or even exist! One Russian friend of ours imagined that they returned to their hometowns and did commission work or else simply ended up working in another field. He told us that the market for art in Russia just wasn't very good. Actually we were eventually able to track down one recent graduate online, currently showing his work in a California…
Work of Serge Marshennikov

So as bad as we may sometimes feel the situation for the arts is in America, for sure it's not that bad. And as small and not traditional as our New York Academy of Art seems in comparison, it is surely alive and well and brimming with creativity and invention. In honor of, and inspired by our Russian counterparts, I'll challenge myself to work even harder this coming year, striving for excellence and making the most of the great opportunities we have here.

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