Art is Best Served Cold
From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings (1870-1925), from Moscow and St Petersburg Royal Academy of Art, London 26 January 2008 – 18 April 2008
The superlative art exhibition, From Russia: French and Russian Master Paintings (1870-1925), from Moscow and St Petersburg, represents an ambitious, if oddball, collection of important pieces from Russia’s four major museums—the Pushkin and the Tretyakov in Moscow, and the Hermitage and the Russian Museum in St Petersburg. Several British cabinet ministers, and various envoys straddling Russian and British negotiating tables, entered into the diplomatic fracas that almost aborted the exhibition. Diplomacy having prevailed, with no love from Russia lost, fifty French impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces are now convened at the Royal Academy of Arts, featuring French Masters as the obvious, sublime attractions. The exhibition is important in its significance not least for chronicling art his—and the cultural relief of Russian art collecting more generally. Shchukin and Morozov, the spiritual and benefactor fathers of the From Russia collection, had made generous bequests to the Pushkin before the Russian revolution. However, a number of bold, pioneering pieces that had been discerningly collected by the pair—pieces forming spectacular parts of From Russia—disappeared from public view in 1948 when Stalin shut the Pushkin Museum. He held the collections in contempt as ‘…a breeding ground of formalist views and obsequiousness before decadent bourgeois culture.’ Today, From Russia is celebrated stomping ground.
I. Exhibitionist Politics
Controversy surrounded the From Russia exhibition because the Russian authorities claimed that Britain had failed to guarantee the safe return of the exhibits. The ensuing diplomatic breakdown came rapidly. In December 2007, a matter of weeks before the paintings were to be exhibited, Roskultura, the Russian State culture agency, announced the cancellation of the exhibition, for reasons rooted in principles of property law and holding good title. A number of French works featured had been seized by Lenin in 1917; the ownership of those works has since been disputed. Roskultura anticipated that claims by the descendants of original owners would lie against the contested title of several works, opening the Russian collection to the vulnerability that those claims might gain ground while the works are in this jurisdiction.
There is no respite from the relentless reminder of history: the brinkmanship of tested Russo-Anglo relations has worked its way to the fore. A diplomatic chill has ensued between Russia and the UK in recent months, the focus and astringency of which has been sharpened to a point by disagreement over recent proposed extradition proceedings. Those jurisdictional disagreements relate to inquiries and proposed criminal charges in connection with the former KGB agent, Alexander Litvinenko, a Cold War-inspired plot involving his murder by poisoning. Few diplomats, though, however seasoned, could have foreseen the encroaching of this political spat into the usually tranquil environs of the art world. It is stark that Russo-Anglo tensions have bled into the preserve of the art exhibition. More than stark, it represents a new kind of Cold War paradigm whereby relations between the two countries are being mediated over the oils and canvasses of several Grand Masters. Among these are the apolitical Picasso, the restrained Matisse, and the demented Van Gogh, none of whom had inclination or appetite for power perspectives.
In the 1960s and 1970s, it was roughly enough to stockpile commensurable numbers of nuclear weapons, threatening the Damocles Sword of world annihilation. That crude, Lego block-building politics has been replaced by a more insidious, creeping kind that lacks the transparency of brute force and the immediacy of threat that its predecessor displayed. This is not to foretell the Domesday of internationally convened art exhibitions. On the contrary, the final diplomatic word is that the Russian authorities are keen to press on with a UK hosting of From Russia. Instead, the thought is that this new phase of international relations marks the ascendancy of the diplomat. He must now step forward from the shadows and into the breach, to take up the mantle of clear-sighted responsibility from which certain world leaders have seemingly abdicated. That we do not know who these overlooked bureaucrats-turned-technocrats-cum-diplomats are, or how they operate and whose ears they bend, is revealing of new insecurities emerging in our international relations.
The point should first be made, however, that while the world of hosting art exhibitions can hardly be described as transparent or morally scrupulous, neither is it, in any meaningful or serious way, distinctively characterised as political. That is, if the term ‘political’ refers to something more sophisticated than the flexing of simple power dynamics and exerting of influence—which corporate enterprises, banks, and charities do routi—there was previously nothing to distinguish the art of exhibitions as identifiably political. Of course art exhibitions cannot be lumped into an exhaustive category. There are the more audacious, richly endowed, bolder exhibitions that eclipse the almost monastic feel of other smaller, less focal exhibitions. But, in the intentioned sense of brokering power, conveners of exhibitions would have to undergo a change in orientation to become magnates of real-world political power. Thanks to the heightened, internationally unfolding drama preceding the Russo-Anglo exhibition, there is now some parity between the position in which the curators of the From Russia exhibition find themselves, and that routinely faced by museums and libraries alike. This is a subtle but serious change. It is one that does not auger well as a precedent for the transfer and storage of art exhibits during periods of sustained friction between countries that have not resolved their differences at a time when exhibitions are planned or in progress.
Implausibly, the claim made by both British and Russian governments is that problems over this year’s From Russia exhibition were not related to the political fallout from the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. The 2006 poisoning of Litvinenko by polonium-210 in a restaurant in Soho, London had led to a testy period of strained relations between the two countries. Further strain came with Russia’s announcement that it was to refuse the British authorities’ request for extradition of the prime suspect, Andrei Lugovoi, for questioning and to face possible criminal charges. The rationale given at the time by Russia was that UK prosecuting and extradition authorities had not cooperated with Putin’s personal request for the UK to extradite the Russian émigré, Boris Berezovsky, who had secured a safe haven in this country. Since the diplomatic dispute between Russia and the UK, Roskultura had agreed to export the works, providing that a new law was implemented to guarantee their ‘safety’—in other words, their immunity from claims to ownership and better title. This was conditional on the British Culture Secretary, James Purnell (a Balliol College alumnus) having undertaken in December 2007 to secure comprehensive legislation by early January 2008. Unlike many western countries, Britain previously lacked legislation expressly designed to protect seizures from national collections from bids to better title. This statutory oversight had not before registered as an important legislative gap, until Russia drew attention to the several descendants of previous owners of certain works who had expressed an interest in contesting title.
The Royal Academy of Arts confirmed its hosting of the exhibition in an online statement on 9th January, 2008.
II. Highlights of the Exhibition
The full complement of exhibits on display at From Russia are too numerous and wondrous to be richly pursued here, such that only a selection of items featured in the Diaghilev and the World of Art Movement win space here. (Advance previews of the works described are available online, at the site of the Royal Academy of Arts) The distribution of the works is revealing of how the Russian art scene variously stagnated and progressed. From Russia begins with gentle landscapes that reproduce and seek to capture similar depictions in contemporary European, particularly French, art. The landscapes start with Corot and Theodore Rousseau, featuring a portrait of Tolstoy with bare foot, dressed as a peasant, and an imposing, urgent large canvass of the 1905 October revolution. Next is the thorough-going treatment of Monet and Manet—look out for Manet’s In the Bar—bleeding into works by Cezanne, Gaugin, Matisse, Picasso, and Von Gogh.
The exhibition is carved up into four sections—French and Russian Realists; The great collectors, Shchukin and Morozov; Diaghilev and the World of Art movement, and Modernism. Of these, the Realists and Modernists claim the hype, and deservedly so, since they are the most ambitious show-cases—the ordering of the Modernism display offers new insights into the chronology and sources of influence among Modernist artists. If not as technically brilliant, easily the most esoteric works on display are among the serious collection of Sergei Diaghilev. Spearheading the World of Art movement (the Russian for ‘World of Art’ is Мир иску́сства), Diaghilev was instrumental to promoting the ascendancy of several students of the World of Art movement. Importantly, this section of the exhibition includes works by Alexander Benois and Leon Bakst, two of the founding students of the World of Art movement in 1898, in Saint-Petersburg. Boris Kustodiev, Nochiolas Roerich, Alexander Golovin and Valentin Serov have pieces featured, taking as their subjects the great figures of Russian cultural life, including Vsevolod Meyerhold, the talented Russian theatrical producer, director, and actor; Feodor Chaliapin, the acclaimed Russian opera performer; and the actress, Anna Akhmatova.
Léon Bakst’s Portrait of Sergei Diaghilev with His Nanny (1906, oil on canvas, 161 x 116cm), part of the section on Diaghilev and the World of Art movement, is a joy to behold. Diaghilev, his hands shoved deeply into ample pockets, a dart of escaped bright yellow cufflink showing, is in the foreground. His body is shown side on, while his face turns expectantly and regally to onlookers. The proportions of the piece are curious. Even given the perspective, Diaghilev is a broad man whose torso alone swallows a quarter of the canvas, Diaghilev’s head seems technically too small, and his suit looks ill-cut. His stance is one of defiance: a heavy floor-to-ceiling black curtain drapes behind him, sectioning off a third of the background scene. A small painting hangs on the right of the wall behind Diaghilev, showing a dull landscape, dwarfed by the unbearable black drape. To the left, seated, is a wretched harridan stubbornly clothed in what appear to be from the same heavy black material as the drape, in a hat and dress. She is unceremoniously described as ‘His Nanny,’ but one wonders whether Diaghilev is not boastful and unremittingly proud of her, as though Nanny were herself a feast for the eyes. The use of evanescent lilacs that streak through the curtains and admit what looks like a setting winter sun, and the presence of a swirl in the bottom right-hand corner of the scene, lend the painting a surreal air. Diaghilev could almost morph into the atrophying old maid behind him, given the silvery greys and densities of black that they share. This process may already be set in play: Diaghilev wears a badger-like grey streak in his hair, which forms a distinctive detail demarking him from the black drape.
Dancing Peasant Woman (1913, oil on canvas, 210 x 125cm), by Philipp Malyavin, is a bold, striking display of femininity and peasantry. Malyavin was enormously influenced by the giddiness of the peasant dances and culture; his fascination permeates the canvas. The sexuality and provocation of this piece is knowingly explicit. A luxuriously long canvas concedes at least two-thirds of its length to a full, floridly emblazoned skirt worn by ‘Dancing Peasant Woman.’ The use of oils on the canvas is minutely studied and its intricacy pays dividends. Small geometric blocks divide portions of colour and light, which, without the identifying features of a human face and hands, we might mistake for a satellite map of clustered favellas and fields yet to be discovered. The come-hither eyes of the black Dancing Peasant Woman encapsulate the heat and giddiness of females dancing for men on other continents; the span of her right hand, flung open behind her head, hints at intimacy and temptation. The woman’s nipped waist, emphasised by her gathered skirts and the curvature of her back and breasts, lends a careless injection of movement to the fluidity of the oils that compete for space and separation.
Portrait of Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940) (1916, oil on canvas, 247 x 168cm), by Boris Grigoriev, is exquisitely executed. Meyerhold established the Moscow Art Theatre with Stanislavski, breaking new ground in theatrical production and performance: this piece succeeds in capturing Meyerhold’s rejection of the traditional confines method acting. Grigoriev’s Portrait captures the flair and dedication that typified Meyerhold’s bold, shocking theatre. The image on the left hand side of the canvas shows Meyerhold in dinner jacket tails and white gloves while performing, was used on Russian stamps in the year 2000. The Portrait captures the imagination in a number of ways: the two impressions of Meyerhold it depicts are dramatically juxtaposed to convey the drama and mysticism on which Meyerhold founded a career. Set against a luxuriant black drop, one impression of Meyerhold as performer, in which he wears tails, seems to both frame and cramp the canvas. His arms and hands push at the contours of the canvas, as they would if he were performing the deliberately melodramatic, awkward symbolism with which his name is synonymous. In the remaining room the canvas permits, to the right, as though emerging from the other Meyerhold’s armpit, a brilliantly dressed, fantastical version of Meyerhold emerges. This Meyerhold has sharp, incisive eyes, shrewdly cast askance, a bow and arrow in his clutches, adorned in gorgeous pink and orange patterned silks. He does not bear comparison with images of a sixty-five year-old resigned, humiliated Meyerhold, taken at the time when he was held by the authorities during their mistreatment of him.
The pieces displayed as part of the From Russia exhibition are as transitional and radical as the politics from which they emerge: revelatory, revolutionary, and rebelling against repression. They are also whimsical, celebratory, bold, proud, and speak to a Russia that still celebrates its sovereignty by giving other countries the Cold shoulder. There now appears to be a settlement of comity between the Russian and UK authorities. The last word on the extraordinary diplomatic proceedings to have marked the hesitancy and eventual opening of the From Russia exhibition must surely go to Mikhail Shvydkoy, the head of Russia’s Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography. Speaking on the vexed topic of the extradition proceedings and legislative issues preceding From Russia, the upbeat and sprightly note struck hardly betrays the angst and seam of high tension that has characterised the curatorial: ‘I hope that this exhibition will be pure happiness both for the British audience…’
- ‘Forget saving it for the nation—great art must be freed from the vaults,’ The Guardian, 22nd January, 2008: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/story/0,,2246685,00.html
- ‘Russian art show gets green light,’ BBC News, 31st December, 2007: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7165155.stm
- Purnell signed the Commencement Order for Part 6 of the Protection of Cultural Objects on Loan of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007. The statutory provision brings into force legislation effecting so-called ‘immunity from seizure’ powers (having come into force at 00.01am on 31st December 2007).
- The legislation was probably not necessary, given that two of the individual descendants had earlier clarified their position, stating that they had no intention to contest the claim to legal ownership of certain works, asserting instead a right to financial compensation. Nothing would, of course, have precluded those individuals from revising their position, such as to launch a bid to recover the works: ‘Russian collectors’ heirs want compensation for lost art,’ The Guardian, 22nd January, 2008: http://arts.guardian.co.uk/art/visualart/story/0,,2244873,00.html
- ‘Russian Government Gives Final Approval for Royal Academy Exhibition’: http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/from-russia/statement
- ‘Russian masterpieces brighten UK art scene’: Russia Today, 23rd January, 2008: http://www.russiatoday.ru/news/news/19976