Of Russian origin: The Wanderers
An itinerant is a nomad. Someone of no fixed address who spends their days journeying from place to place. In Russian culture one very particular group of 19th century itinerants consisted of a coterie of realist artists who formed a society based on freedom of movement and thought in protest at what they perceived to be the academic restrictions being imposed upon them by the ruling elite. They called themselves the Peredvizhniki, meaning the Wanderers or Itinerants.
Their mission was to defy the stuffiness of the mainstream art world of their contemporaries. They didn’t want to make ‘art for art’s sake’, but rather to create something that was rooted in the contemporary socio-political architecture, something that would be useful for society. Their art was to be grounded in the same ideals as those shared by their friends and contemporaries Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy.
They wanted art to be taken out into society and not hidden away in galleries, hence the nomadic quality that lay at the very core of their philosophy, organizing travelling exhibitions throughout the Russian countryside. So the group, formed in 1870, was titled the Society for Traveling Art Exhibitions 1870.
It was founded by four prominent St. Petersburg artists: Ivan Kramskoy, Grigory Myasoyedov, Nikolay Ghe and Vasily Perov. They saw themselves as bastions of democracy and avant-garde ideals, locked in battle against the more conservative official centers of art, namely the St. Petersburg Academy of Art.
Under the leadership of Kramskoy, the society crystallized their artistic philosophy, drawing heavily on the views espoused by literary critic Vissarion Belinsky and then-popular social activist Nikolay Chernyshevsky. The latter stood vocally against press censorship, capital punishment and serfdom. His publications were banned in the 19th century Russia, although his dissertation did manage to leak its way out into the art world. And in 1863, following the emancipation of Russian serfs, a group of fourteen students at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts protested for the public acknowledgement of Chernyshevsky’s work. In doing so they broke away from the Academy and some seven years later, these same fourteen students formed the beginnings of the Society of Wandering Exhibitions or put more simply, the Wanderers.
From 1871 to 1923 the society arranged 48 mobile exhibitions in Moscow and St. Petersburg, after which they were shown in Kiev, Kharkov, Kazan, Orel, Riga, Odessa and other cities.
They wanted their art to act as social treaties, showing all sides. They highlighted the poverty endured by many across the country, but also the beauty that existed, both in nature and in the strength and cohesion of rural and urban society. As a group, they were unanimous in their damning of the Russian autocratic elites but they utilized talent from outside of Russia as well; incorporating like-minded artists from Armenia, Latvia and Ukraine and showcasing the works of many others from across the globe.
The Society’s profile grew steadily, culminating in the 1890s with the Academy of Arts including Peredvizhniki pieces in their repertoire. However, at the turn of the 20th century, the society’s influence began to wane, with some of its artists beginning to fracture off into the blossoming Soviet art scene. By 1898, Mir iskusstva (World of Art group) was the new group to dominate the art world.
The final, 48th exhibition of Peredvizhniki was held in 1923. Many of its artists went on to join the Association of Artists in Revolutionary Russia, and took on the mantle of creating art that was easily accessible, and rooted in the needs and concerns of ordinary working Russians across the country.
Written by Alice Hibbert, RT correspondent