Masterpieces On Loan From Russia At The Royal Academy

By Ben Reus | 22 January 2008
painting of raucous celebrations in the street

Ilya Repin, October 17, 1905, (1907, 1911). The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg. Photo © The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

Exhibition Review - From Russia, French and Russian Master Paintings 1870 - 1925 from Moscow and St Petersburg at the Royal Academy London January 26 - April 18 2008.

After months of diplomatic wrangling, From Russia, the exhibition of French and Russian masterpieces, has finally arrived at The Royal Academy of Art in London, opening to the public on Saturday January 26.

The latest trivial standoff between Britain and Russia involved disputes over the rightful ownership of some of the paintings, seized during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, and the possibility they could be reclaimed by descendants of the original owners once the paintings arrived in Britain.

Rushed amendments to the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 have since ensured that the masterpieces by artists like Cézanne, Picasso, Kandinsky and Malevich will be loaned without the Russian government's fears of repossession being realised.

All the works come from the collections of four great Russian museums: The State Pushkin Museum Of Fine Arts, the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, the State Hermitage and the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg.

From Russia explores the relationship between Russian and French art, from the last third of the nineteenth century until 1925, a period that witnessed the abolition of serfdom in Russia and the 1905 and 1917 revolutions.

painting of a tall thin man with a long white beard standing barefoot under a tree

Ilya Repin, Leo Tolstoy Barefoot, 1901. The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg. Photo © The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

Major works by artists now considered to be among the great pioneers of modern art are shown with key pieces from Realism and Impressionism and the abstract movements of Suprematism and Constructivism.

“Modern French art was undoubtedly the hallmark of much of the period covered by the exhibition,” explained the show’s organiser and co-curator, Sir Norman Rosenthal. “But the variety of ways in which the Russians succeeded in fusing it with their own cultural heritage, resulted in a unique creative force that changed the course of modern art”.

The exhibition's clear narrative begins with the emancipation of certain Russian artists from the more secular, classical Russian art, through Russian studies, patronage and the collection of French art and on to their experimentation and new directions.

The first section focuses on a new age in Russian art that emerged in the early 1860s, in particular a travelling group of artists and exhibitors known as ‘The Wanderers’.

Shaped by a growing sense of national consciousness, The Wanderers broke away from St Petersburg’s Imperial Academy of Arts, rejecting the traditional mythological and biblical focus.

Their goal was to introduce contemporary national and social issues into their art and to present it to a wider audience. There was a tension between looking west for inspiration and retaining a strong sense of Russian identity.

painting of a man with a pointed goatee beard and moustache in front of patterned wallpaper

Vincent Van Gogh, Portait of Dr Felix Rey, 1889. The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. Photo © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Ilya Repin’s (1901) Leo Tolstoy Barefoot, illustrates this shift from classical Russian art, in this case classical portrait art, towards the inclusion of nationally and socially conscious ideals. In the two-metre-high oil painting, Tolstoy, the wealthy author of 'War and Peace' is shown wearing peasant clothes.

The move away from grandly themed elitist art is illustrated again, both by the beautiful, yet understated, Moscow Courtyard (1878) by Vasily Polenov and by After the Rain (1889) by Isaac Levitan. The first is a realist painting in the Russian tradition, except for the subject matter, which shows an unassuming courtyard with a child playing in the overgrown grass. The second could almost be an early impressionist painting by a young Monet.

Moving through the exhibition, we are introduced to the collections of two of the most important Russian art collectors of the period; textile magnates, Sergei Shchukin (1855 – 1936) and Ivan Morozov (1871 – 1921), and the works exhibited at 11 exhibitions around Europe by theatrical impresario Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes.

Shchukin and Morozov thought of themselves as private museum owners, opening their collections to budding Russian artists, which in turn inspired these artists to follow in the French traditions that Shchukin and Morocov admired.

The girl at the piano (1868-69), an early Cézanne, owned by Morocov is almost replicated as a parody later in the exhibition by Ilya Mashkov in Self-portrait with Pyotr Konchalovsky (1910). In it, the two girls are substituted with Ilya and Pyotr, whilst the score, believed to be Wagner’s Tanhäuser overture in Cézanne’s painting, is replaced by one of popular Spanish songs.

painting of a seated nude woman in a colourful landscape

Paul Gauguin, Vairaumati Tei Oa (Her Name is Vairaumati), 1892. The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. Photo © The State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Further on are paintings in the Shchukin and Morozov collections that emphasize the globally interdependent relationship artists have. Seminal works like ‘Vairaumati Tei Oa’ (1892), by Gauguin, inspired by Tahitian art and the African inspired ‘The Dryad’ (1908), and ‘Farm Woman II’ (1908), both by Picasso.

Next is Matisse’s The Dance (1910), recently described as “The most beautiful modern painting in the world” by a Guardian art critic, taking pride of place across four metres of wall in the centre of the room.

It’s the first time The Dance has been in England and, according to Sir Norman Rosenthal it is one of the reasons for putting this exhibition together.

Described by Sir Norman as “both savage and civilised, ancient and modern,” the Dance leads the way into the Russians’ fusion of ideas that follow in the next two rooms.

The almost psychedelic juxtaposition of primary colours in ‘Peasant woman dancing’ (1931) by Phillipp Malyavin would arguably never have been possible without the French Fauvists and Boris Kustodiev’s overstuffed ‘Beauty’ (1915) recalls late Renoir nudes.Also displayed is a nude portrait by Valentin Serov of the renowned dancer and beauty Ida Rubenstein, who herself commissioned Ravel’s classical music ‘Bolero’ to dance to.

Primitivist, Impressionist, and later Cubist, influences on Russian art become more apparent as the exhibition progresses but the composition and style become more Russian and distinct.

Paintings like Winter (1912) by Mikhail Larionov, carry Primitivist ideas in the composition and design of the painting, but also include a haunting poem about the harshness of the Russian winter.

‘Pillars of Salt’ (1908) by Natalia Goncharova and ‘The promenade’ (1917-18) by Marc Chagall echo the early cubist tradition whilst maintaining a distinct Russian feel. The curious figures in ‘Pillars of Salt’, for example, are based on stone babas, large medieval totem statues found on the southern Russian steppe.

painting of naked people dancing in a circle holding hands

Henri Matisse, The Dance, 1910. The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. Photo Archives Matisse, Paris © Succession H. Matisse/DACS 2007

Further on a more unique contribution emerges from the Cubo-Futurists, who blended the fragmented objects and verbal cues of the French Cubists with the fascination with movement of Italian Futurists.

A striking example of Cubo-Futurism that shows off these extraordinary innovations is the remarkable The German War (1914-15) by Pavel Filonov, which paves the way for the final room of paintings, showcasing the Russian Avant-Garde.

Kandinsky’s colourful Compossition VII (1913), based on studies of apocalyptic imagery and Russian folklore shares the next space with Malevich’s haunting and radical triptych; Black Circle, Black Square, Black Cross (1915), expressing what he called “The zero of form”.

Finally, the epilogue to From Russia is a short film and model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Corner Counter Relief sculpture-building that remained an unrealised ideal due to the Second World War. If constructed, it would have been a third higher than the Eiffel Tower and would have served as the international headquarters of the Comintern (the organisation dedicated to inciting world revolution).

In the current diplomatic climate between Russia and the West, it is hard to think of building a twisted metal monument to communism for the sake of art – as awe-inspiring as it might look on the streets of St Petersburg. Although perhaps we could learn to tolerate and inspire each other like artists and collectors featured in From Russia instead of the petty squabbling we’re becoming used to.

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