French and Russian Master Paintings from Moscow and St Petersberg 1870-1925
Royal Academy 26th Jan-18th April (...yep, another exhibition I manage to review just as it closes!)
i) Modernism At Home and Abroad
That two-word title, the very thing which initially seemed doubtful about this exhibition, turns out to be it’s main source of strength. This isn’t Russian art but art “from Russia”; the disgorged collections of four museums from Moscow and St Petersberg. The poster boy for the show is not a Russian painting at all, but Matisse’s Dance II! The place where a bunch of paintings happened to get stuck after the Bolshevik takeover, doesn’t that sound like a somewhat arbitrary rationale for a show? An exhibition isn’t an illustrated essay, but neither is it pretty wallpaper. Shouldn’t it have some meaning and shape?
Admittedly it means omissions, some of which even an amateur like myself can spot. (Can you really have a Russian art show from this era without Mayakovsky or Rodchenko?) But, however arrived at, the chance to compare the Paris-based with the Russian artists throws both into relief, and even gives you something of a sense of what it must have been to be a Modernist artist in Russia at this time.
For one thing it impresses upon you how, in a world before colour photography, it was important where paintings ended up. It’s commonly agreed that the place to be for Modernism at this time was Paris. Those bohemians may well have been going hungry in their Notre Dame garrets, but culturally they couldn’t have been more sated! And this sense may have been more emphasised for the Russians than other foreign visitors. Modernism often quite consciously manifestoed itself as art for the modern condition. But unlike progressive France, its cities decorated with gleaming metal towers, Russia was quite definitely tailgating the transition from feudalism to capitalism. It’s Modernists weren’t reacting to something, they were trying to create it.
Of course even in the early Twenties Paris wasn’t off limits to Russian artists; despite the distance many went to study (or even live) there. But the pictures you saw there from thereon lived only in your memory, they weren’t on instant access as they would be today. When you read that, for example, Udaltsova created a copy of a Cubist Picasso for study, you get a sudden sense of time and place. When the artists’ group Jack of Diamonds organized exhibitions of French art, it’s reminiscent of the way before video budding directors formed film societies - the only way to see many movies then was to show them.
But the main sense you get as you walk these rooms comes from counting the limited number of French works,- then seeing their motifs being endlessly taken up, copied and referenced by the Russians. (For example Mashkov’s skittish mash-up of Cezanne’s Girl at the Piano). Perhaps it was like being a musician in late Fifties Liverpool; no-one plays R&B on the radio, shop rarely stock it, you can only pick the records up through random encounters with sailors. The music which does come you way you then inevitably fetishise.
… which inevitably works to your advantage. Sometimes the place to be is where everyone else is. But if what you want to do is something different, the crowd isn’t really the place. Even when, like Udaltsova, you try to copy something foreign you inevitably end up changing it. And if the picture you’re copying is essentially incomplete, as you can only access a limited number of the works, this effect is enhanced. Russian modernism was seeded by these paintings from France, but what came to birth was new hybrids and variants such as Neo-Primitivism and Cubo-Futurism.
ii) Modernist Folk
But of course the creative explosion in Russian art in this period can’t be reduced to distance alone. There’s a paradox afoot where the artists here saw themselves as a Modernist outpost in a sea of semi-feudalism, yet at the same time drew from a domestic wellspring of inspiration. Of course this paradox is in some ways inherent to Modernism, simultaneously looking forward while venerating the primitive. Yet ironically Modernism’s access to the primitive mostly came from the treasures of colonialism, the tribal masks of Picasso coming from France’s African colonies. Russia’s treasures, conversely, were domestic.
As Ann Dumas puts it in the catalogue “Russian artists were becoming increasingly conscious of their national artistic heritage. The cheap, popular woodcut prints (lubki), toys, painted trays, fairground hoardings and shop signs of Russian folk art, as well as icons, became new invigorating sources of inspiration.” This was perhaps a consequence of Russia’s unique status in Europe, it’s vast size and still-near-feudal relations in the countryside. (Perhaps a similar argument could be made for Mexico.)
There even seem to have been attempts to break out of the urbanity of Moscow and St Petersberg into the Russian heartlands. As early as 1870 the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions (soon known more catchily at the Wanderers) were literally trying just that. I don’t know if they made it as far as the Kamchatka peninsula, but the idea’s a cool one. (Later Mayaokovsky was taking muralled-up trains around the country as mobile art exhibitions, but that doesn’t get a mention here.)
If these folk roots gave Russian Modernism much of its vibrancy, perhaps it also weighted its approach to a classic Modernist dilemma. Though Modernism was in general left-leaning, it was often pitched upon the conflict between the individualist and the collective. Perhaps Expressionism, with its emphasis upon capturing the subjectivity of experience, was Modernism at its most individualist. But most works on show here suggest Russian art was inclining towards the collective.
Perhaps the political context also comes in here. From Repin’s celebratory 17 October 1905 onwards, we’re reminded how it was not France but Russia which was politically cutting edge. From 1917 Russia suddenly felt a new country (in both senses), and an uneasy state tolerance of radical arts was perhaps misread as encouragement. (All of which is of course slid over by this exhibition.)
iii) Join the Dance
Ironically, perhaps the main exemplifier of this on show is the French poster boy itself - Matisse’s Dance II. It’s true that the picture owes much of its impact to its colour sense, as limited as it is vivid. In his later years Matisse worked only through tearing and shaping coloured card, and the roots of that style are visible here. However, the limitations of only seeing this work through its colour scheme are shown later in the exhibition, by one Russian work which is nothing but an inferior copy. Kuzma Pretrov-Vodkin’s The Playing Boys (painted two years later in 1911) duplicates it like a covers band copying the same chords – but getting nothing of the sense.
In a fitting phrase the exhibition describes the “radical simplifications” of Matisse’s figurework. The figures don’t just hold hands so much as form a circle, as if the composition has caught them at some midpoint in shedding their individual shape. Only one of them seems to have a face left, and that is the most basic cartoon arrangement of features. The circle itself is not geometic but loose, flowing and ululating. The figures combine with the colour scheme in a very simple image, yet you feel if you added or took anything away the whole thing would come crashing down. It’s a Bacchic paen to the loss of self, and the invitation to us is to join in and step inside… (Tellingly it was nearly destroyed for its “decadence”, not when painted but during the Stalinist era.)
iv) Let No Painting Be Our Master
There’s a stock point in these exhibition reviews where I complain about the focus on painting. This is something akin to my complaining when superhero films contain plot holes or prices go up at Christmas. It’s doubly disappointing when so much Russian art was moving away from painting; into posters, photomontage, film and theatre design or Constructivist works, to see a show subheaded “master paintings”. There seem to have been two broad approaches. Diaghilev of Ballets Russes, an important svengali in visual arts, staged “productions in which music, choreography and design were fused.” This is akin to Susan Sontag’s theory of Syaenthesis, where all works of art would come together into one. Meanwhile Tatlin’s Constructivism sought not to fuse the arts with each other but press them into the service of design and engineering, to “take control of the forms encountered in everyday life.”
(Albeit with mixed success.Tatlin’s Corner Counter-Relief makes much of using ‘proletarian’ materials such as rope and wire. But it just reminds you of trustafarians appropriating ‘workers” clothes, such as dungarees and cloth caps when they want to look rebellious. Tatlin went on to reject painting as inherently ‘bourgeois’, but ironically his paintings outshine this effort.)
Of course, while all this is sometimes alluded to, we can’t expect any more from the stuffy Victorian Academy…
…actually, they do a few things. A room is given over to Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (what everyone calls the ‘Tatlin Tower’.) The labels even make a sly comment about it being planned as taller than the Eiffel Tower, suggesting something of a pissing contest. But they mostly attempt to fill in the gaps with blow-up photos - of contemporary exhibitions, film or theatre designs and costumes etc. These aren’t adequate but do achieve a surprising amount in bringing the work to life, in one case changing your response to it almost entirely.
Malevich’s infamous Suprematist tryptich comes in here, the infamously geometric black square, circle and cross. The crowds did not seem to be gathering overly around these works, at least not on the day I attended. But when you see a picture of him stretched on his deathbed, the Black Square above his head in an almost all-white room, you suddenly get the sense of a man looking past this world to stare into the infinite. You would need a heart of stone not to be moved.
v) Please Patronise Us!
Another couple of photos show some of these paintings not on the walls of exhibitions but adorning the houses of their wealthy patrons, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov. These collectors shouldn’t be parodied as mere pretentious flaunters of wealth. They seem to have been keen followers of Modernism, supporting important artists (including Matisse) from early in their careers, plus they often exhibited their purchases publicly. And this was all at a time when Modernism was genuinely shocking. (It’s darkly amusing that their reward for supporting the radical arts for so many years was to have their collections “nationalised” by the Bolsheviks, as the catalogue delicately puts it.)
However it’s worth reminding ourselves how Modernist art relied upon a Medieval means of subsistence; for example both collectors employed artists to decorate panels in their mansions as well as sell them paintings. (This was perhaps part of the impetus away from painting, towards more ‘democratic’ forms such as poster design.) And it is frustrating to realise you are only hearing the sunny-side-up stories. For example, Shchukin commissioned Matisse’s Dance II to decorate his home, but got cold feet when confronted with its bawdy nature. Of course he got over this. But if he hadn’t and the work was never finished, would we ever know of it?
Nevertheless it’s a boon that the show even touches on such normally overlooked subjects, rather than presenting artists as inhabiting some higher realm than such worldly stuff. This was given an extra, unintentional fillip when descendants of the original purchasers threatened legal action to get their property back. A law had to hastily drafted to allow the exhibition to go ahead. Modernist art may point at another world. But it’s nailed to a wall in this one.
Needless to say, if I could ever visit Paris in this period I would be there in a flash. After all, it’s commonly agreed that the place to be for Modernism at this time was Paris. Well, people don’t know nothing. There’s a degree to which the rush to Paris just gained it’s own momentum – artists went to Paris because artists went to Paris. But perhaps Modernism in Russia was more like Modernism in Germany, except more so. Art was neither inspired by social events, nor sought to influence them with its rhetoric. Society seemed to be morphing before your eyes, and artists came to feel their work was fusing with social events – they saw themselves as quite literally making another world. You come out of this exhibition with an exhilarating sense not just of experimentalism but possibility. Yet of course much of that sense comes from the cut-off date of 1925. You could perhaps play a black joke and add on an extra room for radical art in the Stalinist era, then leave the space empty…