26th January 2008 — 18th April 2008
With 124 paintings lent by the four main Russian State museums; the
State Pushkin Museum and the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow and the
State Hermitage Museum and the State Russian Museums in St. Petersburg,
'From Russia', is a unique opportunity to see the Russia's state
collection all under one roof.
Political crises and ownership issues notwithstanding, the exhibition operates around two central axis; the substantial collections of French art amassed by the fervent Russian collectors Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov in the pre-Revolution years and second the ways in which these collections influenced the Russian artists of the period.
Shchukin and Morozov both collected large amounts of works by Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse, Picasso and others and the two largest rooms of the exhibition are devoted to their works. Centre stage has been given over to the dazzling, glamorous, seductive painting that is Matisse's 'La Danse' (1910). Surrounding it are other works by Matisse, the reds, oranges and blues of which jump all over the place, daring you to ignore them, daring you to look at anything.
Elsewhere in the next room, Chagall's 'The Promenade', is another gem, a bizarre anti-gravity version of a romantic picnic and several Picassos including 'Farm Woman (bust)' (1908), 'Dryad' (1908), and 'Violin and Guitar' (1912-13) help to make up this incredible who's who (as well as some notable 'who's thats?') of early Twentieth century painting and its drive towards solipsistic abstraction.
While these paintings are fantastic and the collection's density and depth wonderful, it is the second half of the exhibition which contains the most fascinating narratives; the different ways in which Russian artists took up some of the styles and aesthetics of these French works and imbued them with a completely different set of meanings and to such different effects. The Russian artists gave Cubism a spiritual and mystical meaning, turning it towards the life of everyday Russia peasantry and its problems. While the French artists took refuge in ancient and exotic arts and peoples, the Russians had more pressing concerns closer to them and as such turned towards contemporary life not away from it.
Here, though the exhibition becomes less focused, and the narrative relies on the small amount of contextual photographs; Malevich's deathbed (his painting 'Black Square' hanging ominously above him in the place of the crucifix), exhibition spaces as laboratories and artists as workers (Rodchenko is a boiler suit) begin to give away something of an idea of the differences in aesthetic drive; the influence of social conditions become far more important than collectors, Western European concerns or foreign travel.
Presented as the end point of an inexorable march towards use and function as the primary aesthetic criterion, is Tatlin's 'Monument to the Third International' - his giant (never realised) headquarters of the Third Communist International. The now-iconic structure was to have been bigger than the Eiffel Tower and was to have been both the dynamic representation and hub of the international revolution. Rather than being a specific political tool, 'From Russia' presents this end point as being simply the three-dimensional articulation of abstract painting. This, in essence, is what makes it a strange exhibition in many ways; while it acknowledges political and social differences as driving forces of aesthetics, it relies too heavily on its own central tenet of exchange and dialogue to be able to posit them as central. Nonetheless the finality of displaying Malevich's triptych 'Black Cross', 'Black Square' and 'Black Circle' (1923) against the dancing gaiety of Matisse makes for a compelling experience; worth, perhaps, the trouble after all.
Royal Academy of Arts
London W1J 0BD
Late night Friday until 10pm