An extract from The Demon by Mikhail Lermontov
This composition represents Seated Demon — Mikhail Vrubel’s famous painting, which has undoubtedly become one of the artist’s most popular and recognizable works due to its deeply symbolic nature and unique brushwork.
Vrubel created the painting in 1891 as part of his commission of thirty illustrations for the anniversary edition of Mikhail Lermontov’s work, which, of course, featured his famous poem The Demon, recognized as one of his greatest masterpieces. It tells a tragic story of a restless Demon and his love for the beautiful Tamara. Tired of boredom, Demon, much to his own surprise, falls in love with the wonderful girl right on the day of her marriage. Consumed with jealousy, he plots the death of her fiancée and returns to haunt her again and again, vying for her attention and reluctant to leave her in peace even after she enters a monastery. The Demon’s love, however, leads to grave consequences and the poem ends with a distressing scene of Tamara’s funeral.
However, Lermontov’s Demon should not be perceived as absolute evil; he is not trying to hurt anyone, he is the one who suffers. The poet portrays him as a human being who can experience boredom, passionate love and jealousy. An unattainable ideal, maximalism, internal struggle, doubts and restlessness — all of these are Demon’s characteristics as perceived by Vrubel.
This painting is considered one of the first major works of symbolism. What makes it particularly close to symbolism is the ambivalence of great spirit and desperate loneliness.
Vrubel’s technique is immediately recognizable; exceptionally skilled at using a palette knife, he is a painter and a sculptor at once. His brushwork seems to imitate mosaic. For instance, the shapes of the flowers, which bear a striking resemblance to crystals, were inspired by the texture of rocks. This is why the representation of the painting in stone looks so organic.
The range of materials used for this composition has been intentionally limited, but the craftsmen managed to create a very dramatic and powerful image. The base is made of a smoky quartz druse, while the figure of the Demon is cut out of amethyst in such a way that the most transparent part is reserved for the head. The hair, also made of smoky quarts, creates an interesting effect; it reflects golden glints inside the amethyst head and they flare upinside, as if they are restless thoughts or overwhelming emotions.
A Demon, soul of all the banished,
sadly above the sinful world
floated, and thoughts of days now vanished
before him crowdingly unfurled;
days when, in glory’s habitation,
he shone out a pure cherubim,
when comets flying on their station
rejoiced to exchange a salutation
of welcome and of love with him,
when through the vapours of creation,
hungry for knowledge, he flew on
with caravans in their migration
to space where headlong stars have gone;
with love and faith to lean upon,
happy first-born of our condition,
he knew no evil, no suspicion,
his mind undaunted by the length
of fruitless aeons sadly falling...
so much, so much there was... the strength,
the will now fails him for recalling!
He wandered, now long-since outcast;
his desert had no refuge in it:
and one by one the ages passed,
as minute follows after minute,
each one monotonously dull.
The world he ruled was void and null;
the ill he sowed in his existence
brought no delight. His technique scored,
he found no traces of resistance —
yet evil left him deeply bored.