Masters of modern art from the Hermitage
The phrase “modern art” is an anachronism, referring as it does to the visual culture of the era we call “modernism” and not to what is modern now. It does, however, still evoke its original frisson of excitement for the new in a rapidly changing world.
“Modern art – if we continue to use this term – is a very specific and consciously formulated cultural phenomenon that embraces a whole century, from 1860 to 1960,” writes Albert Kostenevich, curator of French painting at the Hermitage Museum, in the catalogue essay for a dazzling exhibition on now at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. “As an era, it is uneven, fading away in its later half. Its greatest achievements fall in the earlier period, before the First World War, a period when we see the discovery of impressionism and its consequences: symbolism, fauvism, expressionism and cubism.”
The exhibition, Masters of modern art from the Hermitage, is put together from the holdings of those great collectors Sergey Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, whose lives straddled the 19th and 20th centuries. It doesn’t follow the usual blockbuster formula – a few gems amid loads of fillers prised from storage. Here, the paintings were taken from the walls of the General Staff Building, across the square from the Hermitage Palace, where the movement has been housed since 2014.
Shchukin and his younger friend Morozov, both industrialists, were toing and froing from Paris, as wealthy Russians did in those days, and both fell for the new, still-controversial shift in art. This shift – from mimesis to the breakdown of reality into molecular explorations of substance and light – was still thought nonsensical by the art establishment, but Shchukin and Morozov were hooked.
They met the artists, bought vast quantities of their art and transformed their houses back in Russia into private museums, walls lined with works by Monet, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Gauguin and many more. Shchukin soon amassed the best collection of French modernism in the world, according to Masters of modern art from the Hermitage curator Mikhail Dedinkin, and invited Matisse to Moscow to reorganise the paintings and redecorate his house. Shchukin gathered more than 40 paintings by Picasso – whom Dedinkin amusingly described as “terrible character, best artist” at the media preview. The art came as a great shock, Dedinkin said, when Shchukin opened his house, free, for the public to see it. “Pre-WWI it was the only place in the world that ordinary people could be informed about the greatest artists of the time,” he said.
Shchukin apparently mentioned several times that he intended to leave his collection to the state. That happened willy-nilly. When the Bolsheviks took over, both collections were nationalised and merged into a single museum, the Museum of New Western Art. Stalin, however, denounced modern art, and the collection was divided between Moscow and St Petersburg and placed in storage. Only with the Soviet thaw under Khrushchev – in the mid 1950s, when abstract expressionism was at its peak in the United States, the Soviet Union’s arch enemy, and the CIA was using the movement for Cold War propaganda purposes – did it come into public view again.
Sixty-five of these works have been brought to Sydney, in a historical arch from the shivering, pastel-coloured cold of Alfred Sisley’s Windy Day at Veneux (1882) to Kazimir Malevich’s groundbreaking Black square (1932). In between are pictures equal in quality to their more famous counterparts from the Musée d’Orsay in Paris or MoMA in New York. In the catalogue, several are shown with insets of more famous pictures of the same subject painted at the same time.
Cézanne’s Fruit (1879–80), which is hanging in Sydney, for example, is compared to MoMA’s Cézanne, Milk Can and Apples (1879–80). Both contain similar elements: apples, a bread roll, a napkin and kitchen paraphernalia on top of a wooden cabinet, leaf decorations on the wall. In both, one can see Cézanne’s experimentation with space and construction: the way he anchors each picture with the central bright white napkin; the way he arranged the recognisable but blurred and darkened shapes of the other elements. The eye involved is clearly the one that appraised his landscapes. The “compelling white shape” of the napkin, the catalogue suggests, “is the pictorial idea of a napkin, rather than a literal depiction.”
Cézanne’s Still Life with Apples (1895–98), by the way, hung in the huge MoMA exhibition that closed in Melbourne on October 7. With the American Masters in Canberra, we are having a very modernist moment in Australia.
One can also see the eye of the collectors – or Dedinkin’s – at work. Several of the paintings on show are less delineated versions of the comparisons provided in the catalogue, especially the Matisses. Take his Sunflowers in a vase (1898) – the bright yellow of the sunflowers set against blue-green leaves of a yellow lily, standing on a brown surface, maybe a cabinet or floorboards, surface against a wildly agitated depiction of a wall. It is sketchy and broad brushstrokes make the horizontal surface and the walls a mess of colour and light. It is far more exciting than the Sunflowers of the same year the catalogue compares it to, which is still clearly Matisse, but tamer, more finished, more balanced, and complete with shadows and verticals that clarify the interior in which it is set.
This urgency of colour and light is present in many of the paintings in the Hermitage show. Two of the Kandinskys are before his move into abstraction. View of Murnau: landscape with a green house (1908) and Winter (1909), the view of another house, isolated in a hilly landscape, are dense with saturated colour. Although the subject matter in both is calm, the tone makes them foreboding – is the unease in the moment, in the artist’s mind, or the viewer’s?
Another work, Landscape: Dunaberg near Murnau (1913), shows Kandinsky in transition. It is another isolated place, but the hills and trees, painted in blues and reds and yellows, have to be looked at through half-closed eyes to register the subject of the title. Viewed normally it is a very beautiful concatenation of abstract shape and line and colour.
The Picassos on show are revelatory. We see none of his hysterical dissected women – thank God – but rather a series of figures from 1902 to 1909 when he was transitioning out of realist representation into cubism. His Nude boy (1906) has obvious similarities to MoMA’s more famous Boy Leading a Horse (1905–6). A monochrome in soft brown and white, it depicts the same short-legged child, outlined in Picasso’s trademark black strokes, leaning against the sketch of a cabinet with only a line in the bottom left of the painting, to the boy’s right, to suggest the floor and wall of a room.
His Woman with a Fan (1908) is a wonderful example of Picasso’s infatuation with “primitive art”, which the Western art world once called African art and the French art world still does. Geometric shapes in strong browns, white, grey and black, with one breast exposed and the curve of the top of her dress the only relief in the rectangular construction.
Two more pictures, from 1912 and 1914, show Picasso’s shift into cubism with the still lifes he and Braque were experimenting with. Table in a cafe (bottle of Pernod) (1912) shows how far not only art but also society had come from the Dutch masters’ ownership of the genre in the 17th century. Far from the careful depiction of God’s creation, a nod to the opulence required by bourgeois buyers of art and the ubiquitous memento mori, this is a celebration of the new fast-paced, mechanical, industrial and hedonistic Western world.
There is so much more to see: Matisse’s nudes; Signac’s pointillism; Rousseau’s strange cartoon-like realism; Denis’s very Christian neo-classicism. Pissarro’s Boulevard Montmartre, afternoon sun (1897) is a brighter match for the NGV’s Boulevard Montmartre, morning, cloudy weather of the same year. Two pictures that epitomise the new excitement of colour are Vlaminck’s View of the Seine (1906), a depiction of a yacht on the great river in bold brushstrokes and bright, saturated colours, and Matisse’s Woman on a terrace (1906), shows a (fully clothed!) woman on a balcony overlooking a bay, shading her eyes from the hot sun of Collioure, in the south of France.
This is an exciting exhibition, enough to induce Stendhal syndrome in the susceptible. Malevich’s Black square at the end, which was placed in the position an icon – in the strict meaning of the word – would occupy in a private room at the exhibition of its first version in 1915, is the sobering pinnacle of affect.
Next though, I would like to see a show from the Hermitage of the great Russian modernists: their critique of serfdom and poverty, their own idiosyncratic shift into abstraction, into Suprematism and back to social realism in the Soviet era, and the many women who received more credit than their sisters in the West do. We don’t see enough of them.
CINEMA Tilde ’18
Footscray Community Arts Centre, Melbourne, November 8-11
INSTALLATION Chinese Bible: Revolution and art in China
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until April 28
PHOTOGRAPHY Micheila Petersfield: A World of My Own
Despard Gallery, Hobart, until November 11
BALLET Don Quixote
Lyric Theatre, Brisbane, November 7-17
VISUAL ART The Garden of Forking Paths: Mira Gojak and Takehito Koganezawa
Buxton Contemporary, Melbourne, November 7–February 17
THEATRE War Sum Up
Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide, November 5-6
CLASSICAL ACO: Tognetti’s Beethoven
Newcastle City Hall, November 8
Llewellyn Hall, Canberra, November 10
Hamer Hall, Melbourne, November 11-12
Adelaide Town Hall, November 13
Perth Concert Hall, November 14
City Recital Hall, Sydney, November 17, 20-21
Sydney Opera House, November 18
QPAC, Brisbane, November 19
THEATRE Cerita Anak (Child’s Story)
The Odeon, Adelaide, until November 4
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 3, 2018 as "Masters’ class ". Subscribe here.