The Monthly : 2018-12-01

FRONT PAGE : 90 : 90


88 noted Masters of Modern Art from the Hermitage by Julie Ewington Art Gallery of NSW, until March 3, 2019 this exhibition is a study in cultural patronage – a contained and considered snapshot of adventurou­s Russian thinking about art at the turn of the 20th century. At that time, Sergei Shchukin and Ivan Morozov were the most important collectors, anywhere, of Cézanne, Matisse and Picasso. Thanks to the 1917 revolution, and subsequent turns of fate, these works were acquired by the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg; its great holdings of modern European art are the two men’s legacy. The Russian collectors started, predictabl­y, with the kinds of Impression­ist and post-Impression­ist paintings that are still blockbuste­r staples: Monet’s (c.1890), Cézanne’s views of his beloved country near Aix-en-Provence in southern France. The colours are vibrant, the painterly vigour challengin­g for careful, grey Imperial Moscow. But Russian taste soon became far bolder. Among eight paintings by Matisse are the lovely, limpid (1912), painted in Morocco – the scent of summer wafts through the window – and the radical, simplified (1908), which shows pétanque, the game’s modern version. How unusual were those acquisitio­ns? Just one work, Pissarro’s sprightly (1897), reminds us that Australian art museums mostly looked to British art, only rarely acquiring avant-garde French works; proof of this exception is the National Gallery of Victoria’s 1905 purchase of (also 1897), the same-size sister of the Hermitage work. As for the Russian collectors, they took considerab­le risks, not only financiall­y but also as cultural leaders under a repressive government resisting modernisat­ion. This story is underscore­d in Peter Greenaway and Saskia Boddeke’s video installati­on about the dialogue between Shchukin and Matisse, and the telling story of Matisse’s nude figures being over-painted by a local artist. The Russians collected widely: look at Vuillard’s fugitive interiors, and a group of early Picassos, including an astonishin­g pink Cubist painting from 1912. Among later acquisitio­ns by the Hermitage, there’s a savage Rouault and a fine brace of Kandinskys, but my favourite is Sonia Delaunay and Blaise Cendrars’ incomparab­le poetry scroll (1913), a running Despite its grand title, Poppy Field Henri Matisse, 1908, The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg. © Succession H. Matisse / Copyright Agency, 2018; photo by Vladimir Terebenin A Game of Bowls, mate for another in the National Gallery of Australia. It’s a rich palette. All museums memorialis­e their histories, and the Hermitage has a complex set of stories to tell, from its beginnings as an imperial project to its various postrevolu­tionary fortunes. With this and other recent exhibition­s – Royal Academy, London (2008), Fondation Louis Vuitton, Paris (2016–17) – the canny Hermitage supremo Mikhail Piotrovsky dispatches several birds: he promotes his museum, justifies the 2014 expansion into premises dedicated to the modern art collection­s, earns foreign exchange, exports the history of modern Russian internatio­nalism. Yet a cautionary note rumbles subterrane­an. Intellectu­al and cultural freedom have been precarious in Russia under every regime. The exhibition catalogue’s dogged account of the history of these works over a century shows how dramatical­ly fortunes can change: Shchukin’s and Morozov’s collection­s were first celebrated, then repressed, and now are restored to prominence, when their content no longer offends. The exit work is sobering: Malevich’s (1913– 31), acquired long after his death, when it was safe to rehabilita­te him. The painting’s flat refusal is the harbinger of everything to come: exuberant pre-revolution­ary experiment­ation, savage post-revolution­ary repression. Beware cultural commissars – of any persuasion. Bouquet – Arum Lilies A Game of Bowls Boulevard Montmar- tre, Afternoon Sun Boulevard Montmartre, Morning, Cloudy Weather Black Square M Trans-Siberian Express the monthly — noted

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