Understanding the Russian Academy of Arts

In a recent piece on The Voice of Russia, Dr. Rosalind Polly Blakesley of the University of Cambridge provides a great introduction to the history and principles of the Russian Academy of Arts.*

Dr. Blakesley finds the academy unique for several reasons. Through the modern period when movement after movement declared a total break with art of the past, the Russian Academy has had, “a pretty continuous history.” Blakesley also draws attention to the length and intensity of art education:

“Arguably, the thing that set the Russian Academy apart most is that it had its own boarding school. It was absolutely unique in that respect. […] The idea was you would set up a lot of boarding schools where children, mainly boys, would reside from the ages of 5 to 21. So pretty much most of their life until adulthood. […] They got up at 5 o’clock in the morning, they did separate lessons that went on long into the evening so it was an incredible, very sort of insular, hermetically sealed environment in which to learn to be an artist.”

Through the Soviet period, artists began studying at specialized schools very young. A few years ago I was interviewing artist and friend Ilya Yatsenko about his education, and was shocked to learn that when he entered boarding school for the arts at age 10, he was already a latecomer. Most of the students had begun at age 8. He was allowed to join because of the strength of his work. 

The story of the Russian Academy of Arts draws attention to two significant contrasts between art education in Russia and art education in the West: an emphasis on continuity vs. breaks with the past and an emphasis on training vs. talent. 

“The school believed that great artistry could be taught, passed on from master to student – a far cry from the modern belief that artistic talent is a gift that can be nurtured but not instilled.”

Link to the full article at Voice of Russia

*Disclaimer: The article seems to confuse the Russian Academy of Arts with one of the four schools it has long presided over – the Repin Institute in St. Petersburg. The academy is in control of Russia’s two most prestigious secondary art schools – the Repin Institute in St. Petersburg, the Surikov Institute in Moscow, and the preparatory schools that they draw from.