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It is only since the demise of the Soviet Union that Russian art, or European art in Russian collections, has been widely seen in the West. This catalogue, which covers both aspects, complements an exhibition "From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg" held at the Museum Kunst Palast, Dusseldorf, in 2007-8 and at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2008. It offers the possibility to read essays written by eminent Russian art scholars.
The paintings come from 4 Russian museums: Alexander Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow; Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow; State Hermitage, St Petersburg and the State Russian Museum, St Petersburg and, following a Foreword by the President of the Royal Academy of Arts, the Directors of the 4 museums briefly describe their institutions. The French and Russian artists are presented in separate sections.
Two essays introduce the French paintings: "Russia - France. A Meeting at the Crossroads" by Albert Kostenevich and "Moscow as a Centre for Collecting Contemporary French Painting from 1870 to 1920" by Anna Poznanskaya and Alexei Petukhov.
Five essays are presented to support the Russian paintings: "Russian Art on the Path from Realism to Impressionism and Symbolism" by Lydia Iovleva; "Personal Religiousness and Religious Consciousness among Russian Artists at the Turn of the 20th Century" by Yevgenia Petrovna; "'...A Generation Crying Out for Beauty.....' The World of Art: Between the World and Art" by Vladimir Lenyashin; "'.... She Hears the Clock's Galloping Horse Inside Herself'" by Hubertus Gassner and "Pure Painting: Abstractionism in Russia" by Christina Lodder.
The essays are accompanied by small illustrations which serve their purpose. The catalogue plates and brief biographies of the artists follow the essays. For people, like me, who cannot distinguish between MKhl, MKhK, MNZZh, MOLKh, MTKh and MUZhVZ, an explanation of Abbreviations is included as well as a Chronicle of Events in the Cultural and Political Life of France and Russia, which is illustrated with contemporary photographs.
Each set of coloured plates, 120 in all, is accompanied by scholarly information about each work's motif and origin. A team of 15 experts from the Russian museums was responsible for the information presented in the catalogue and biographies. Credit is due to Peter Bray and Kenneth MacInnes for the translations, to Irina Tokareva and Galina Maximenko for editing and proofreading the English text.
This exhibition benefits from the collecting zeal of Sergei Shchukin, 1854-1936, and Ivan Morozov, 1871-1921, who between them owned a third of the exhibition's works (there is a similarity with the current crop of Russian oligarchs). However, their collections were appropriated by the Soviet state in 1919 and, during Stalin's purges of the late 1940s, they were divided among the four institutions that have lent them now.
This exhibition almost did not happen because Russia cancelled the exhibition because it was concerned that its paintings might be seized in London as part of a reparation claim brought by the heirs of the Shchukin and Morosov families. However, the Russians relented after Britain rushed through laws to guarantee against the seizure of foreign state-owned assets.
Before attending this exhibition I was more familiar with the work of the Peredvizhniki (The Wanderers or the Itinerants) who went to the countryside and rediscovered the folk arts than I was with the Russian artists of the first two decades of the 20th century.
What remains unclear to me is what it was about Russia following the 1917 October Revolution that made it fertile ground for a revolutionary art movement that involved all aspects of daily life. The revolutionary decision to remove the artistic wealth of an elite to make it available to the masses sounds almost reasonable but there is little evidence presented to demonstrate in what ways the proletariat benefited.
I confess that I really do not understand the writings of Malevich (in the same way that I lack an awareness of Kandinsky's literary oeuvre). However, having not been moved before by seeing his "Black Square", c.1923 (here shown alongside the "Back Circle" and "Black Square" of the same date) in art books, I found that gazing at the painting did provide a glimmer of understanding of the artist's aim to use the simplest possible geometric figures isolated in their purest form. Might there yet be a "Black Triangle" hidden at the back of some Moscow garage? Given all the effort of forging an Old Master or Vermeer, would it not be much easier to produce a new iconic work of Malevich's?
Amongst the French works, I was struck by Carolus-Duran's "Portrait of Nadezhda Polovtsova", 1876; Monet's "The Pond at Montgeron", painted in 1876 when the artist was struggling financially; Cezanne's three-dimensional "Mont Sainte-Victoire", 1896-8; Van Dongen's "Lucie and her Partner", 1911, which I had seen reproduced before; Valloton's magisterial "Portrait of G. E. Haasan", 1913; Matisse's "Nude (Black and Gold)", 1908, and "The Dance", 1910, in front of which one can almost hear the whirling, swirling music, and "Stream" by de Vlaeminck, 1912-3.
However, it was the Russian works that I lingered over for the longest time: the landscapes of Polenov and Levitan ("Moscow Courtyard", 1878, and "After the Rain, Plyos", 1889, respectively); "Portrait of Sophia Botkina" by Serov, 1899, with its marvellous handling of material and the introspective, rather sad sitter); the fiery swirl of "Peasant Woman Dancing" by Malyavin, late 1900s; the marionette-like "Portrait of Theatre Director Vsevolod Meyerhold" by Grigoriev, 1916; Golovin's imperious "Portrait of Fyodor Chaliapin in the Role of Boris Godunov", 1912; Roerich's decorative "Kissing the Earth", 1912; Tatlin's odalisque-like "Female Model" of 1913; Altman's Cubist "Portrait of Anna Akhmatova", 1915, featured on the book cover and attracting a "Mona Lisa"-like crowd on the day I attended; Kandinsky's "Winter", 1909, painted on the cusp of his break with representational motifs and ""Composition VII", 1913; Matyushin's pulsating "Movement in Space", 1922, and Malevich's "Red Square. Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions",1915, which combines the artist's Suprematist aesthetic with the modernists' love of tortuous titles.
The French artists include one female, the Russian-born Sonia Delaunay-Terk whilst 5 Russian female artists are included, Alexandra Exter, Natalia Goncharova, Liubov Popova, Olga Rozanova and Nadezhda Udaltsova.
This is an excellent catalogue, large but very well produced and bound. Despite the increased frequency of individual works and collections from Russia being seen in the West (for financial and artistic reasons) it is unlikely that too many of the works shown here will be seen again for some time.Read more ›