Saturday, 12 January 2019

Exhibition review: Early Modernist paintings from the Hermitage (2019)

This Art Gallery of New South Wales exhibition was well-patronised on the January day I went to see it. In fact there were a few too many patrons for comfort and I rushed through quickly. Most people will be familiar with the sorts of things on display so many will not need to go along, but for others it will be precisely the familiarity of the styles on show which constitute the drawcard. I picked out four of the works to talk about. These are just the ones that caught my eye.

Russians have been great consumers of European art for a long time. In many respects there was no substantive native art at all until the early 19th century at which time Pushkin came along and single-handedly created a Russian literature. Many novels from England and France and Germany were read in Russia during the period leading up to that great geopolitical disaster, the October Revolution, and so it is not surprising that the two Russian businessmen responsible for this stunning collection were so taken with what was happening in the west.

In fact, it was precisely a perceived deficit of modernity in Russia (emblematised by 1905’s military defeat to Japan) that led to the revolution, although after it took place it would have been inconceivable for a collection such as this one to be assembled. Once the old regime was gotten rid of, the Soviet Union became depressingly unambitious in its artistic tastes, preferring exactly the kinds of figurative work that people like Picasso and Derain were so intent on usurping. So it is richly ironic that Russia today, which is so desperate to reclaim the kind of greatness that it thinks the USSR embodied, is using this collection as a form of soft power in the service of its geopolitical aims.

But just in case anyone is tempted to feel superior thinking that we have gotten over the tendency to ignore what is strange and lovely, don’t be fooled by appearances. Just because we see the value, today, in the Fauves or in the Cubists, doesn’t mean we properly support the most innovative artists who live among us. In fact, the tendency to ignore what is good and original is as typical of the world today as it was in the first decade of the previous century. Nothing has changed. The bourgeoisie is still unimaginative and blind to real talent.

Andre Derain, ‘Mountain Road’ (1907)

This lovely painting contains so much that would become typical for the period: the bold, contrasting colours, the flat surface, the tendency toward abstraction. You can see in this single painting a lot of what became commonplace later in the century, and if you look back to a bit earlier in time you can see how Derain came to the conclusions that he reached in this work. The privileging of light and colour over mere form, and the movement away from representation as a justification for the work itself. Composition becomes more important than figuration in a painting like this, and these characteristics appear in all of the artworks in this collection.

Pablo Picasso, ‘Small House in A Garden’ (1908)

Once again, you see composition coming to the fore in this small picture, where the bright orange of the wall to the right of the canvas concentrates the energy in the painting into a small space. Most of the colours in this painting are muted and plain, so that the green of the tree in the background assumes a tonal significance that would otherwise have been impossible to achieve. The luminous wall of the house in the centre of the canvas has a strange quality as though it were emblematic of something otherworldly, something that would not have been possible to articulate without the abstraction that dominates this work.

Wassily Kandinsky, ‘View of Murnau: landscape with a green house’ (1908)

I’m not a big fan of Kandinsky personally but this small, beautiful work demonstrates the way that painters in the era were using colours in new ways, ways that represented a distinct break with tradition. It’s hard to imagine what it would have been like to be alive at the time looking at a painting like this, but it must have been intoxicating for some and disturbing for others. We can get some idea about how people living in those days thought about modern art from reading news stories written then.

Chaim Soutine, ‘Self-portrait’ (c 1920/21)

This wonderful work is a bit later in time compared to the others I have chosen. In fact it dates from a good 10 years later, after WWI had finished. But it strikes me as being so demonstrably relevant in relation to what came later, especially what emerged in the period after WWII with the Abstract Expressionists. You can see Soutine here working out how to capture the interior person in a rendering of his flesh. Echoes of Bacon appear. This is a work for the ages.

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