From Russia with Love


This landmark exhibition at the Royal Academy (RA) arrived with overtones reminiscent of cold war paranoia. During the on/off period prior to its opening, the Russians exhibited some arrogance. When you see the show lent by the museums of Moscow and St Petersburg, you can understand their pride.

From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925’ explores the cultural relationship between the two countries. It was rather a one way street, Russian artists going to and influenced by the French. The response of the Russian artists was so radical it should have become two-way traffic. Responsibility for the road block can be put fairly at the feet of Joseph Stalin.There is a human interest story at the heart of this show. It is the tale of two avant-guard collectors, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morosov. Both were textile magnates who spent the early years of the twentieth century buying modern art in Paris.

Shchukin was the Saatchi of his day. Between 1908 and 1914, he bought and commissioned almost all the revolutionary paintings of Henri Matisse and became Daniel Kahnweiler’s only regular customer for works by Picasso. Matisse observed that it took nerve to paint his pictures and nerve to buy them. The star of the show is Matisse’s ‘Dance ll’ in which he used three bold primary colours to produce one of the icons of twentieth century art. Henri Matisse died in 1954 without knowing whether this and his other great works bought by Shchulkin had survived. It is worth visiting the RA to see this one painting but, apart from the opening gallery, which sets the scene, there are great works in every section.   

In the first gallery there is a photograph of Shchukin’s Trubetskoy Palace in Moscow with a display of sixteen Gaugin’s on the end wall of his dining room. Morosov appeared to be a competitor when buying works by Gaugin and Cezanne. He also bought paintings by Monet and Bonnard and loved the brilliant colours of the Fauves led by Vlaminck and Derain. Both men opened their homes to artists and Shchukin’s collection was open to the public from 1909. The impact and excitement caused by their French acquisitions is apparent in the last four galleries. After the revolution these collections were nationalised and brought together in Morosov’s Palace. Among the visitors in 1927 was Alfred Barr who returned to New York and founded the Museum of Modern Art in 1928. Barr had one great Matisse ‘The Red Studio’, the only one Shchukin rejected.

I was surprised by the creative energy of Russian art between 1910 and 1925. In 1915, Malevich championed ‘Suprematism’ a radical pure abstract style, forty years before it took hold. Vladimir Tatlin’s call for artists ‘to take control over the forms encountered in everyday life’ inspired a group who called themselves ‘Constructivists’. I was drawn to the female artists, particularly to Liubov Popova. The cubism of her ‘Composition with Figures’ (1913 ) seemed in advance of Picasso himself. Situated between the two halves of the show, the mostly French 2 and 3 and the predominantly Russian finale is Gallery 4. It is entitled ‘Diaghilev and the World of Art’. The curator, Sir Norman Rosenthal said, ‘The founder of the Ballets Russes’ started out as an exhibition organiser like me’. Between 1897 -1906 Diaghilev organised eleven exhibitions. I am drawn to portraits and in this room, as well as one of the impresario, there is a striking nude portrayal of Ida Rubenstein by Valentin Serov. She commissioned Ravel’s Bolero for the ballet. Russia at this time was truly in the avant guard. Set designer, Alexander Golovin painted Shaliapin in the role of Boris Godunov. There is a bizarre self portrait of Ilya Mashkov with Piotr Konchalovsky. Mashkov helped found an influential artist’s group called ‘The Jack of Diamonds’ in 1910.

With so many good paintings, don’t be tempted to rush past the photographs. For me the most fascinating was of Malevich on his death bed. There were white lilies by his head. Immediately above, like an icon, is his Black Square. I am not the greatest fan of abstraction which often seems soulless but this painting has emotion.

Vladimir Tatlin was quite a discovery for me; his ‘Female Model ‘(1913) inspired by Picasso was superb. The show ends with a model of his Monument to the Third International, a gigantic tower which would have been a third taller than the Eiffel Tower. It remained an unrealised dream. Most of the work on display disappeared from view during the Stalin years. As late as 1962, the Hermitage staff was officially warned to take down their Matisses and Picassos. At the Pushkin, Alexandra Andreevna Demskaya secretly preserved documents and photos relating to the two great collectors without whose foresight Russia would not own these paintings. Matisse could have added that it took nerve to curate them too. It was not until 1990 that she was allowed access to the Trubetskoy Palace.

My word count has ended and I haven’t even mentioned Kandinski or Chagall! Go and see for yourself but I would recommend booking in advance: this show will be popular.


From Russia is at the Royal Academy of Arts until 18th April

Nearest Tube Station -Green Park

For details go to

www .