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Museum Musings

From Russia With Art
Text Irina Stroeva
Photos courtesy of Royal Academy of Arts and

The exhibit “From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings 1870-1925 from Moscow and St. Petersburg” at the Royal Academy of Arts in London was a landmark event in a variety of ways. For one, it gathered more than 120 masterpieces by French and Russian artists working between 1870 and 1925 from the collections of Russia’s top museums into a single exhibition for the first time.

The show was also significant in its breadth, presenting works from the major 19th- and early 20th-century schools of Realism, Impressionism, Neo-primitivism, and Cubo-futurism together with those belonging to the abstract schools of Suprematism and Constructivism. In addition, the exhibit included a number of works that had never before visited Britain, making previously inaccessible classics available to British museum goers for the first time. All this, at a moment when relations between Britain and Russia are not at their most relaxed, allowed “From Russia” to serve as a shining example of cooperation and of the unifying power of art.

The first section of the exhibit paid homage to this idea of crosscultural exchange. Devoted to French realist influences on Russian painting, this gallery included such works as Ilya Repin’s “Portrait of Lev Tolstoy” (1893) and “17 October 1905” (1911) and Mikhail Nesterov’s “Murdered Tsarevich Dmitri” (1899).

Repin’s “17 October 1905”

The next section introduced the collections of Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov to a wider audience. The two pre-revolutionary Russian industrialists and art collectors had a profound impact on their contemporary generation of Russian artists by helping them search for new forms of artistic expression. As Irina Antonova, director of the Pushkin Museum, said in an interview with the Royal Academy’s magazine,“...Shchukin and Morozov were truly two incredible men who understood at the beginning of the 20th century that they had to buy paintings by the great masters Picasso and Matisse and other artists who were not yet accepted or considered museum quality...[e]ven in France, the Louvre refused to include the paintings of the Impressionists in its collection...” Describing their collecting as “instinctive,” she continued, “They had taste without a doubt, but there was also something in the air at the time, particularly in Russia, where there was a sense that great and turbulent things were about to happen. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was a revolution in art that began...” The third section was devoted to Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev, who was instrumental in the artistic cross-fertilization between Russia and France. He was a leader of the World of Art movement, which was heavily influenced by French symbolism, Art Nouveau, and stage design.

The fourth and final section presented evidence of new directions in Russian art during the first two decades of the 20th century through the work of such artists as Natalia Goncharova, who took inspiration from traditional Russian peasant art and crafts. In her painting “Peasants” (1911), two men stand against a dark background and look left. Their positions are unusual and more typical of icon images. The same “iconic” tendencies are easily found in the imposing and mysterious figurative compositions of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, whose influence on Russian abstract art is very significant, with his use of Russian traditions.

The Neo-primitivism of Mikhail Larionov, Natan Altman, and, of course, Marc Chagall reflects the influence of Cezanne, Gauguin, van Gogh, and the Fauves. In such works as “Lake” (1910) and “Winter” (1909), Wasily Kandinsky combined Fauvist color with the imagery of Russian fairy tales in daring steps toward abstract painting that would culminate in the vast, apocalyptic visions of his “Composition VII” (1913), one of a number of works in which he intended to express a spirituality that would counter the materialism of contemporary society.

Kandinsky’s “Composition VII”

A striking aspect of Russian Cubo-futurism is the prevalence of woman artists within the movement, including Alexandra Exter, Olga Rozanova, Lyuba Popova, and Nadezhda Udaltsova. The creators of this movement studied Cubist paintings at exhibitions of Western art held in Moscow and St. Petersburg and would have been familiar with Shchukin’s collection of Picasso’s Cubist paintings. Russian Suprematism was represented in the show by the avant-garde figure Kazimir Malevich, whose purely abstract picture “Black Square” (1915) rejected all compositional traditions.

Reviews of the exhibit at the Royal Academy declared it “unmissable,” and although the show closed on April 18, those of us who live in Russia are lucky enough to be able to see its constituent parts whenever we like. Their respective homes — the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Art and the State Tretaykov Gallery in Moscow and the State Hermitage Museum and State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg — are just a metro or overnight-train ride away. The catalog from the exhibit is available at

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