Di­verg­ing from the usual block­buster for­mula, Masters of mod­ern art from the Her­mitage ex­cites with its rich se­lec­tion from the hold­ings of Sergey Shchukin and Ivan Moro­zov, writes Miriam Cosic.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - MIRIAM COSIC is a Syd­ney­based jour­nal­ist, critic and au­thor.

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, pastel­coloured 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 half­closed 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.

The work of Wass­ily Kandin­sky (above) and Kaz­imir Male­vich’s Black square (fac­ing page).

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