Sunday, 30 March 2008

From Russia with knobs on

The Royal Academy's main exhibition, From Russia, is truly amazing but if you've not been yet there's only about two and a half weeks left to scoot up to London to see it. However, to do it justice give yourself all day; do half before lunch and the rest afterwards otherwise its so overwhelming you'll be knackered. And another interesting fact, it's the exhibition that nearly never was, and might never be again.

The Russian museums, worried that some of their wonderful collection of French and Russian master paintings dating between 1870 and 1925 might be the confiscated by alleged owners, got cold feet and refused to lend their paintings. Fortunately for us diplomacy - and the pragmatic decision to safeguard the works from claims – worked and this fantastic collection can be seen in all its glory.

The first room of the exhibition shows the influence of French art in Russia and some superb paintings. I particularly like the full length portraits by Russian artists – they reminded me of Singer Sargent's work – and a wonderful large work, 17 October 1905 by Ilya Repin, of a crowd celebrating the concessions achieved by the uprising against the Romonov regime. The painting is so cheerful - lots of red in it - that the jubilant mood of the crowd is palpable.

Late in the 1890's two very astute, keen and wealthy Russian collectors – Shchukin and Morozov – began to assemble wonderful collections of French art. They started acquiring Impressionist paintings: on exhibition are Monet's haystack and poppy field, Renoir's portraits and social groups and several of Cezanne's vibrant landscapes.

And both men were patrons of the Avant-Garde; some wonderful examples of Van Gogh and Gaugin's glowing paintings of life and landscapes in Tahiti. But their tastes were eclectic, they also liked Denis, Bonnard and the more colourful Derain. Then – what boldness and taste they had – they collected many Matisse and Shchukin was even confident enough to commission some.

Apparently, after commissioning Dance I by Matisse in 1909 he was so worried about the reaction to the painting – that primeval dance, those vivid, alive, roughly outlined figures nearly escaping their frame, that shocking colour – that he nearly cancelled it. Fortunately for us he kept his nerve and the painting came to inspire not only the Russian painters of the time but hundreds since.

At one time Shchukin owned 37 works by Matisse and – his next coup – over 50 paintings by Picasso. His collection covered Picasso's Blue and Rose periods and those inspired by African woodcarving, one of which is on exhibition, as well as Cubist paintings. How amazing it must have been to visit their salons where these were hung. Unfortunately the First World War put paid to their collecting.

Wow, this exhibition is amazing, so much great work to see: I kept thinking that there couldn't be much more. No, I was wrong, another room! Sergei Diaghilev – the founder of Ballets Russes – was a famous impresario of the visual arts and not only introduced French art to Russia but Russian culture to Paris. There's a wonderful, vibrant, full-length painting that shows him in his two roles, one in evening dress, the other in a performer's costume. And I like the 1906 portrait of him by Bakst, where he has such an amused look on his face.

So we learn that Russian artists studied in Paris and were inspired by French artists: Korovin's Paris, 1912, so similar but so much more austere than Pisarro's earlier painting, Paris certainly proves the inspiration angle but is not such a good example that by 1910 they'd begun to experiment and develop their own style. Boy, I thought this must be nearly the end but had to sit down bit, rest the old brain let alone the feet. Then off again into the next room...what more? Neo-Primitivism, inspired by the simplicity of Russian woodcuts and folk art, then Cubo-Futurism – a combination of the fragmented French Cubist style and the movement and dynamism of the Italian Futurists - contributed to this new found confidence.

Now, by this time I'd definitely decided that there couldn't possibly be any more to see but, no, wrong again: rooms full with Russian artist's innovative works from Abstraction to Constructivism. But by now I was reeling. Whew, sighted the exit and made straight for the café and while I got my strength back mulled over the scale of the exhibition, the richness, quality and variety of the works: have decided that I'll just have to come back and do it all again, bit by bit.....with lots of coffee breaks or, better still, lunch.


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