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Repin Tostoy
Ilya Repin
Leo Tolstoy Barefoot, 1901
Oil on canvas 207 x 73 cm
Photo © The State Russian
Museum St Petersburg

Russia’s art history

Corinna Lotz reviews the From Russia exhibition at the Royal Academy

Russia’s course in the first part of the 20th century was amongst the most tumultuous in the world. It saw the overthrow of Czarism, social and political revolution and, eventually, the rise of a monstrous bureaucracy under Stalin. These years are captured by three exhibitions in London - From Russia at the Royal Academy, Alexander Rodchenko at the Hayward Gallery, and Breaking The Rules, at the British Library.

Norman Rosenthal, the Royal Academy’s exhibitions organiser, has staged From Russia as his farewell show. And what a roller coaster ride it is, with all kinds of unexpected bumps, marvels and surprises ranging from absolute stunners down to a few frankly kitsch items.

Artists of all kinds presaged, reflected, embodied and recorded Russia’s upheavals in their work. We are introduced to classics from the period of Czarism. Ilya Repin’s Leo Tolstoy Barefoot shows the famous writer as a barefoot philosopher. Vasily Polenov’s Moscow Courtyard is an archetypal view of old Russia – shambolic, leaning wooden shacks floodlit on a glorious spring day, with golden onion domes gleaming in the mid-distance.

By the turn of the century, a painterly bravura is evident in Isaac Levitan’s atmospheric Summer Evening – just a simple wooden fence, a muddy road with soft encroaching shadows. Valentin Serov’s Sophia Botkina is a Whistlerian symphony in gauzy beiges, pale pink roses set off by the satin-gold settee, her lap dog nestling in her hand.

By 1905 the idyll was shattered. Above the doorway in the RA’s grand rooms, the seething enthusiasm of the revolution is captured by Ilya Levitan’s Manifesto of October 17, 1905. An elegantly attired young man brandishes broken shackles, borne aloft by a crowd of students, professors and workers. The Czar’s censors quickly withdrew Repin’s homage to the revolution from public view.

Repin 1905

Ilya Repin October 17, 1905, 1907, 1911
Oil on canvas 184 x 323 cm Photo © The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

Some awesome visual gems have reached London. Even in the former Soviet Union, many were only displayed for brief periods, first due to Czarist censorship and then later, when Stalin’s edicts against experimental and modern art banished them to museum basements.

Altman Anna Akhmatova
Nathan Altman Portrait of Anna Akhmatova, 1915
Oil on canvas 123.5 x 103.2 cm
Photo©The State Russian Museum, St Petersburg

The State Russian Museum’s collection, for example, incorporates the avant-garde artists’ own Museum of Artistic Culture, which they had themselves selected in Petrograd in 1921 in a ground-breaking move. But this collection, like others, was only put back on public view after 1987 as Gorbachev’s glasnost took hold. It had remained hidden in museum vaults for almost six decades. I recall the hushed silences when Soviet citizens had their first opportunity to see the daring abstractions by Malevich, El Lissitsky and other modernists.

Two rich collectors, Ivan Morosov and Sergei Shchukin, who avidly bought masterpieces by Cezanne, Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse, encouraged a fruitful symbiosis between French and Russian art. Works they purchased, including Matisse’s Dance II, are on display for the first time outside Russia and are amongst the highlights of the show.

Tatlin tower
Vladimir Tatlin
model of Monument to the Third International
Photo courtesy Royal Academy of Arts, London

Artists like Wassily Kandinsky shuttled between Munich, Paris and Moscow. By 1912, Nathan Altman, Vladimir Tatlin, Kasimir Malevitch, Marc Chagall and the amazons of the avant-garde - Lyubov Popova, Olga Rozanova, and Alexandra Exter - had absorbed the Cubist revolution and taken it down their own roads. Altman’s superb female portraits are unequalled even by Picasso. The closing circular gallery features a reconstructed model of Tatlin’s famous Monument to the Third International along with a short Japanese film imagining how it might have looked had it been erected in Moscow. This alone makes the show worthwhile.

The Royal Academy had to overcome some last-minute hurdles to put on this show, not least because the heirs of Morosov and Shchukin were threatening to claim back their ancestors’ private holdings, which the Bolshevik revolution had placed into public ownership. Bizarrely enough, Putin’s government, reactionary and capitalist though it is, was nonetheless obliged to defend the Russian state’s right to ownership! And so it’s thanks to the 1917 revolution they remain on public view, whether in Russia or in London. So it’s worth biting the bullet and stumping up the stiff admission fee.

20 February 2008

From Russia is at the Royal Academy until April 18. Admission £11/£9/£7.50. Open daily 10am-6pm. Late evenings Fridays until 10pm.

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