Russian and French art embrace in London

August 26, 2009

For the first time, Londoners have the opportunity to see paintings from four of Russia’s most relevant museums in an exhibition that explores the marriage between French and Russian art from 1870 until 1925.

“From Russia”, curated by Norman Rosenthal and Ann Dumas and hosted by the Royal Academy of Arts, includes an overwhelming collection of more than 140 works.

Paintings by renowned artists like Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Gaugin, Picasso, Kandinsky or Matisse are present in this exhibition, which gathers for the first time funds from the State Puskin Museum of Fine Arts and the State Tretyakon Gallery in Moscow, the State Hermitage Museum and the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg.

The exhibit illustrates the way Russian painters discovered the art movements that flourished in France from the end of the 19th century and adapted them according to their own cultural heritage.

“From Russia” illustrates how the interaction between the different techniques and concepts of art led to the blossoming of the Russian versions of realism, impressionism and cubism and also paved the way to new ways of expression.

An example of the latter is Russian Cubo-Futurism, born as a combination of the object fragmentation that defined French cubism and the dynamism inherent to Italian futurism. Pavel Filanov´s “The German War” (1914), included in the exhibition, belongs to that artistic current.

Kazmir Malevich´s “Black Square”, which can be seen in the eight gallery of the exhibition, is the epitome of suprematism. This movement went beyond the abstraction used by Wassily Kandinsky to describe his feelings in the famous painting “Composition VII”.

The ninth and last gallery hosts a large model of Vladimir Tatlin´s “Monument to the Third International”, a project that condenses the ideals of the constructivists. The group, born in the 1920s, produced art with “the forms of everyday life” and created pieces with an industrial air.

The difference between the artistic styles can be clearly seen in the many portraits included in the exhibition. Pierre August Renoir uses impressionistic techniques to depict actress Jeanne Samary and manages to capture her innocence and expression of wonder.

Contrarily, Ilya Pepin´s portrait of Leo Tolstoy exudes realism and lets the thoughtful attitude of the writer trespass the boundaries of the canvas.

Pepin is also the author of one of the best-known paintings that can be seen in the exhibit, “17 October 1905”. This large work, which depicts a crowd celebrating the uprising against the Russian Romanov regime and the Orthodox Church, is situated in the first gallery above the rest of the paintings, dominating the space.

While Ilya Pepin´s painting reflects a historical moment, works like “Blessing of young couple before marriage” by Pascal Dagnon-Bouveret, extremely realistic and detailed, constitute an accurate account of the social structure and conventions of the time.

Beyond the strictly artistic dimension, “From Russia” stresses the importance of the arts collectors´ role. Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, both from wealthy Russian textile families, managed to put together what is considered two of the largest collections of French art.

The “Dance II” and “Red Room” by Matisse and Cézanne´s “Girl at the piano” hung on the walls of the Royal Academy constitute just a small portion of their acquisitions.

Shchukin also acknowledged the artistic quality of Spanish painter Pablo Picasso´s works. The paintings included in the exhibition are only an example of the around fifty canvases by this representative of cubism that he owned.

The exhibit pays tribute in one of its galleries to impresario Sergei Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes and leader of the group World of Art, which introduced Western art to Russia through several exhibitions. The group “Jack of Diamonds”, which combined admiration for Cézanne and Russian folk, is present in the exhibit through the self-portrait of Mashkov, one of its members.

“From Russia” is not an exhibition for the impatient. Two hours are not enough to observe the myriad of paintings and understand their significance. Even if the visitor has the impression of contemplating a fast-forwarded version of decades, the exhibition certainly sparks curiosity and prompts more than one thoughtful hum. “From Russia” will be open until the 18th of April.


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